William Archie/MCT

Tangy in April

Despite springtime's sunshine and rainbows, home vegetable gardens can be frustratingly flat, colorless expanses in April.

Amid the canvas of mulch for immature garlic, barely budding artichokes and long-suffering greens and herbs, the undisputed focal point is rhubarb.

The perennial vegetable of garish hues, sprawling stalks and poisonous leaves masquerades as a fruit, albeit a very sour one. Rhubarb's tolerance for cold and readiness for early-spring harvest popularized it as food in Europe and North America after millennia of medicinal use in its native Asia.

Rhubarb's fleshy roots are the source for a natural digestive tonic. The edible stalks bud out from the plant's crown, which suffers both frozen soil and cold-season drought without significant damage. A cousin of celery, rhubarb produces bigger and longer stalks that grow individually — instead of in clusters — with surprising speed and a tendency to spread.

The plant thrives in wet climates, making it a Pacific Northwest specialty. Because many parts of Oregon and Washington see winter temperatures around 40 degrees, which rhubarb needs for reliable commercial production, the two states supply almost all of the country's field-grown rhubarb.

The harvest starts in April, when the chill instills rhubarb's desirable pink pigment and the scarcity of fresh produce commands higher prices, according to Oregon State University Extension. Rhubarb can be harvested again in July, but the soaring mercury makes for green stalks, according to the Extension, while harvesting too late can reduce yields the following year and delay rhubarb's ripening. Experts also advise against harvesting rhubarb in its first year, so the plant can store enough food in its roots.

Unfurling its crinkled leaves on magenta stems in late February, the rhubarb my mother-in-law installed nearly two years prior seemed like an alien species hatching out of our moonscape garden. The plucky plant withstood three relocations to reach its current corner, semishaded and segregated from most other garden growth.

Rhubarb is known to older generations as "pie plant" and surpasses green apples for tartness, prompting most cooks to smother it in sugar. Playing up rhubarb's natural tang, however, complements savory dishes, such as duck and game. Jams, chutneys and other preserves are common preparations of rhubarb because its rigid fibers make for tough eating when raw.

But once heated, rhubarb turns surprisingly fragile. Attaining a silky texture in about 10 minutes, rhubarb turns to mush with too much stirring, so savvy cooks shake pans of the simmering slices to prevent sticking. Cooked pink or red rhubarb retains its rosy hue while green stalks tend to become orange or neutral.

Freezing is an ideal way to preserve sliced rhubarb, which doesn't need to be blanched first. If stored fresh, rhubarb will keep, refrigerated, in an open plastic or paper bag for three to five days. Before bringing rhubarb into the kitchen, always remove its leaves, which contain toxic oxalic acid.

Rhubarb is perhaps most prized as a companion to strawberries, the first true fruits of spring, with ever-bearing varieties ripening in May. But because strawberries come on strongest in June, the window for having them with rhubarb is just a few weeks.

Rhubarb's culinary nickname only reinforces its affinity for pie. This version is strong on rhubarb, which makes up about three-quarters of the filling. So if you have local pie plant, purchasing California strawberries before Southern Oregon's season is a small concession in this case.

Don't stop at strawberries, though. Rhubarb also pairs well with orange and ginger, even overwintered beets. Find a recipe for Beet-Rhubarb Jam on my blog, The Whole Dish, at www.mailtribune.com/wholedish.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

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