The Local Food Report: keeping rhubarb

I think you should know that rhubarb and I—we're kind of an item. We met ages ago, when my mother first tucked him in under the white pine outside my parents' bedroom window, in the corner of the garden where the needles cover the dirt like orange mulch. We liked each other immediately, that little pink sprout and I, and we got into all kinds of things. We made pies and crisps and hauled the leaves out past the laundry line to the compost, and boiled his stalks down to compotes. We washed and dried and chopped and baked, every year all through May and June.

But this spring—this spring we made it official. Rhubarb moved in.

My mother hauled out the shovel one afternoon in April when I was home for a visit and broke off a chunk of root. I tucked that little piece of him away in the back of the car, wrapped in plastic for safe keeping. We drove home, four hours over bumps and pavement and through the toll booths. When we got here, finally, I dug a hole for his feet in the pitch black, and that was it.

Rhubarb was here to stay.

Things are going well so far. I'm not picking, this year, to give him a rest. His leaves have grown broad and green, his stalks pink and strong. And this Saturday in Provincetown, at the farmers' market out there, I met a man who gave me advice on how to keep him happy for years to come. His name was Weston Lant, from Lucky Field Organics Farm in Rochester, and he knew all kinds of things about rhubarb.

He says for starters, I'm right to give him time. He says if you plant a rhubarb plant as a seedling, you ought to give him three years before you pick. "He'll look like heck for the first two," he laughs, "and then the third year, he'll go crazy." With my rhubarb, things are a little different, because I took a chunk of an established root stock, but it's still a good idea to wait at least a year.

He says rhubarb doesn't like wet feet, so you want to find him a sunny, well-drained spot if you want to make it last. He says rhubarb is absolutely smitten with horse-manure, especially if you put it in the hole when you're planting, or around the little pink leaf nubs in the spring, so that's a good way to keep him, too.

Lastly, he says if you manage your rhubarb correctly—if you aren't too greedy—the two of you can be getting into mischief, making pies and crisps and compotes for vanilla ice cream, all summer long. You just have to make sure to cut off the seed heads if you see them, because they will change the flavor and the texture of the stalks. Rhubarb will get a bit mushier, and stringier, and just generally not behave nearly as well if he goes to seed. You have to cut carefully when you do, taking only his larger stalks. And you have to keep rhubarb free of weeds and well-watered, and fertilize his roots every month or so.

If you do all those things, Lant says, rhubarb and you will have a very happy summer together. The two of you will be able to have your pie and eat it too, so to speak, all through June, July, and August, without anyone being the worse for wear. It's probably better if the stalks and the baked goods don't come in all at once.

It would be nice if these muffins, in particular, hadn't come in at all, but that's another story. Suffice it to say that rhubarb compote is a treat best left to ice creams and toast and kept far, far away from ridiculous versions of rhubarb upside-down muffins. Because warm on vanilla bean ice cream or spread over hot butter toast? Those ways, rhubarb compote shines. It makes the whole day light up, beaming out from your mouth. And it's much, much simpler than rhubarb pie—just water, rhubarb, and sugar over heat.

Of course there's always pie, too, but we talked about that the other day. And rhubarb and I, if we're going to make this work, we have to keep a steady pace. So cut carefully, and enjoy. I'll see you all next week.


Rhubarb compote is a particular favorite of my mother's. She eats it at all times of day—over oatmeal, with plain yogurt, on toast or in a p.b. & j., or after dinner over vanilla ice cream. It freezes well, and an extra batch will go a long way on a cold winter morning when you're dreaming of spring.

If you don't have a rhubarb patch and you're looking to buy some, there's a complete listing of farms that sell it in our area over here. Just type in your zip code, click re-sort, and voilá! Rhubarb it is.

6 cups of 1 inch pieces of rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water

Throw the rhubarb, sugar, and water together in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and turn down the heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb begins to fall apart and makes a nice, slightly runny sauce. Keep this in the refrigerator—I generally use it cold unless I'm serving it over ice cream, in which case it's nice to heat it back up.


Anonymous said...

Elspeth, you are right: rhubarb compote is one of my favorites, and it does indeed freeze beautifully. On a cold winter morning, there is nothing cheerier than a bowl of hot Maine oatmeal (Izzy's is my favorite, as you know!) with a dollop of rhubarb compote on top.

I think it is best made w/ brown sugar rather than white; to me, the brown sugar has more flavor.

I discovered two other great things just last year: rhubarb chutney and rhubarb marmalade. Both are fabulous! xo, Mama

Teresa said...

I'm jealous of how close you've gotten to rhubarb, Elspeth. I've been flirting but nothing doing. Howcome mine (planted in a sunny corner of my Wellfleet garden)is a perennial runt? I fantasize that if it would grow big and Maine-like the deer who just ate everything else, and I mean every single other thing in my garden, would nibble it and stagger away forever. I'm thinking of adding lime to the soil around where it's planted, since ours soil (if you can call it that) is so acidic.

Elspeth said...


Oh no! My only thought is that my success could be related to a big layer of loam that covers the sandy soil on our hill. Before I moved in, the Fishmonger had a bunch of trees cut down and a load of loam dumped on the hill by a landscaper. A ton of compost, horse manure, and good thick soil might do the trick for yours.

Then again, mine came from a very established root stock, so it took off quickly. How long has yours been planted—maybe it just needs time?

All the best,

tracy said...

Maybe they were not your prettiest effort, but I can say those so called "ridiculous" rhubarb upside down muffins were a highlight of my weekend. Yum! That and a great trip to the farmers market and planting with you...who could ask for a better Saturday. I think you've sold me on finding a place for rhubarb in the garden...will you get jealous if he goes off with another woman? XO T

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