Rhubarb: Spring's Bounty

As Missoula’s fickle spring presents warm, then cold, then warm, then colder weather I look forward to spring’s garden champion: rhubarb. After pushing through the ground like the reddish brain coils of a soil bound alien, my rhubarb is a spectacular display of ruby stalks and elephant-ear-sized leaves. When I glance out my kitchen window through sheets of freezing rain, I can almost hear the rhubarb saying, “Bring on the 38 degree weather. Bring on the sleet. Bring on the hail.  I can feed you all.” And at the size of large washing machine, my rhubarb patch can certainly provide for me and any of my neighbors hankering for a tart, sweet treat.

Rhubarb is a very hardy perennial. (Perennials are plants that come back every year after dying back through the winter.) Easy to grow and care for, I recommend planting rhubarb to anyone who likes its tart taste. Typically, rhubarb is usually grown from root divisions. You can purchase root stock from nurseries and seed catalogs or if you see a garden with a large rhubarb patch, ask the gardener if she’s ready to split the rhubarb roots. Once you have a root ball or piece, select a site to plant that’s sunny or just lightly shaded. And remember, rhubarb is a big plant and you can estimate that it’ll eventually grow to be four by four feet and three feet tall. 

One thing to note about the plant: it’s a heavy feeder. If you want succulent, delicious stalks, you’re going to need to provide compost and fertilizer in the spring as the leaves emerge and in the middle of summer. In the fall, as the plant becomes dormant, mulch with compost and cover with straw or leaves.  Rhubarb can survive in Missoula without watering, but if you water regularly, say twice a week, you’ll get a much better crop.  A quick reminder: the only edible part of rhubarb is the stalk. The leaves are poisonous as they contain oxalic acid; compost or discard the leaves. If you purchase rhubarb in the store or at the farmer’s market, the leaves will already be removed from the stalks.

As the first food plant that produces in my garden I take full advantage of rhubarb, cooking rhubarb pie, sauce, crisp, and bread. In addition to the sweet rhubarb treats, I also like to make a few savory rhubarb sauces like rhubarb chutney and rhubarb barbeque sauce.  Here’s a rhubarb barbeque sauce for canning, based on the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving recipe:

Rhubarb Barbeque Sauce (makes about 4 pint jars)

8 cups chopped rhubarb

3 ½ cups lightly packed brown sugar

1 ½ cups chopped raisins (I like to mix black & golden, or even dried currants)

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup white vinegar

1 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsps ground ginger

1 tsp salt

  1. Prepare canner, pint jars, and lids (If you don’t know how to do this, look it up!)
  2. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine rhubarb, brown sugar, raisins, onion, vinegar, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently until mixture is thickened to the consistency of a thin, commercial barbecue sauce, about 30 – 45 minutes.
  3. Ladle hot sauce into hot jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, as necessary, by adding hot sauce. Wipe jar rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
  4. Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 20 minutes (I’ve already adjusted for Missoula’s altitude for you). Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store after making sure your lids have sealed.

NOTE:  You can freeze this sauce rather than water bath canning, or halve the recipe and just refrigerate and use within two weeks of making.

While thinner than commercial sauces, this is great with chicken and pork. It also makes a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich paired with brie or other soft cheeses. Or spread on sliced baguette with goat cheese and toast under the broiler – yum!