Monday, July 16, 2012

Put Up or Shut Up Episode 2: Rhubarb

Maybe you're thinking about getting gardening, but you're not sure you can do it.  Maybe you're not sure that your soil is good, or you don't really have time to turn over a plot, or you've got a fairly shady yard.  Maybe you have a tendency to kill your house plants, and you're just not ready to take that outdoors where the neighbors can see and judge. 


Might I recommend starting out with: Mint (in any of it's forms), sorrel, zucchini, and rhubarb.

Okay, maybe not the zucchini.  It takes a lot of room.  If you're not prepared for that, just stick with the mint, sorrel, and rhubarb.

Sorrel, if you've never had it, is a kind of salad green.  It comes back every year, and produces a big, kind of peppery, kind of lemony leaf.  It's probably not something you want to eat by itself, but it's a nice addition to a salad.

Mint is a weed.  There are a plethora of kinds of mint out there, if you want to get creative.  Mint, spearmint, chocolate mint, apple mint, pineapple mint.  Just make sure you want mint before you plant it.  I plant it under my bushes where the grass won't grow.

And rhubarb, well, we all love rhubarb.  Who doesn't love a good strawberry rhubarb pie?  (Answer: my dad.  He wants his pie all rhubarb, no strawberries.)  Rhubarb is very hardy, it's cold and drought tolerant, and the plants generally live for 8-15 years.  Also, in doing my research, I found that you're not supposed to have more than 4 or 5 buds (focal points where the stems come out of) coming out of the plant.  I ran out and did a quick check, and I appear to have significantly more than that (I lost track of which ones I had counted somewhere around 10, so I will be breaking up my rhubarb this fall next spring (just read that you should only break up rhubarb in early spring) if anyone nearby would like one.  I also learned that rhubarb does not appreciate temperatures over 90 degrees, which is probably why it's looked so sad recently.

One of the things that amuses me about rhubarb is that the more you pick, the more you get. Really.  It sort of chokes itself out under it's own leaves and just stops growing.  Thin out the leaves, and poof it starts growing again.

After a post on rhubarb last year, I received a comment on Facebook that you shouldn't eat rhubarb picked after the end of June, because the stalks get poisonous.  From what I can find on the internet, this is not true.  However, it does say that stems get tougher later in the season and, as we discussed previously, that rhubarb doesn't grow as well in hot weather.  So, if you pick when it's hot out, your plant might be damaged and the stalks won't even be that good.  Except I've never had a problem with tough stalks, and my plant is out of control... so I'm going to keep on picking!

In my opinion, the best way to preserve rhubarb is just straight up freezing.  Cut the leaves off and compost them, wash the stems, cut them up into about 1/2 inch pieces, and throw them in the freezer.  I like to freeze in two cup increments, because most rhubarb recipes I've seen call for rhubarb in 2, 4, or 6 cup increments.  When you need it, throw it in your pie, or cobbler, or your ribs, or your chicken, or whatever!

This year I also tried pickling some rhubarb.  It was just okay.  The flavor was there, but the texture was not.  I want a pickle to be crispy, and this was very soft and just a little stringy (like rhubarb can be) which made it a challenge to bite into.

I wonder, though, if this isn't because I have very thin rhubarb.  I don't think it's because my plant is overgrown - I've always had thin rhubarb.  And the parent plant that my rhubarb came from has thin stalks.  And the sibling plants that have broken off of both my and the parent plants have thin stalks.  Thin stalks are going to cook faster, and therefore get softer.

So, if you've got extra rhubarb to spare, try pickling it.

I also had the opportunity to use my new food toy.  For my birthday, my wonderful husband got me a food dehydrator.  Because, really, what I need is another way to stash away food.  I'm pretty sure I was a squirrel in a former life.

I tried the rhubarb in the dehydrator two ways: little pieces of rhubarb tossed in sugar and a little bit of cinnamon, and fruit roll-ups.

Yes, fruit roll-ups.  Or, I suppose I should say fruit leather so the fruit roll-up people don't find me and sue me.

The regular rhubarb was good.  It is sweet and sour and a little tangy, and will be a great addition to a trail mix.  I do love a trail mix, and it's nice to have something that I made myself to throw in.

But the fruit leather, this was the star.  Oh yes.  It was just exactly what you want a grown up fruit roll up to be - with real fruit and no preservatives, and actual little chunks of fruit.  It was not, however, a good way to preserve food.  Because it was so good I ate it all immediately!

Pickled Rhubarb 
Recipe from Serious Eats.  If you don't know already how I feel about making up your own canning recipes, here it is: Don't do it!

  • 1 pound rhubarb stalks (4 to 6 large stalks)
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine grain salt
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
Prepare two wide mouth pint jars and lids.

Wash rhubarb stalks well and trim to fit into the jars. If the stalks are broad, slice them into lengthwise sections. In a small saucepan, combine the apple cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt and bring to a boil.

Divide the mustard seeds, peppercorns, cloves and star anise between the two prepared jars. Pack the rhubarb pieces into the jars above the spices.

Once the pickling liquid has boiled and the sugar and salt are dissolved, pour it into the jars over the rhubarb, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Tap the jars gently to dislodge any air bubbles. If the headspace level has dropped significantly, add more pickling liquid.

Wipe jar rims, apply lids and rings and process jars in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes. When time is up, remove jars from canner and set them to cool on a folded kitchen towel. When jars are cool enough to handle, remove rings and test seals. If jars are at all sticky, wash them to remove that residue. Sealed jars can be stored in the pantry for up to 1 year. Unsealed jars can be stored in the refrigerator and eaten within 2 weeks.

Let this pickle cure for at least 48 hours before eating.

Dried Rhubarb

  • 2 lbs rhubarb stalks, washed and peeled if necissary
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon 
 Cut rhubarb into one inch pieces.  Combine sugar and cinnamon, and toss with rhubarb.  Dehydrate for about 8 hours at 125 degrees using your favorite dehydrating method (regular dehydrator, warm oven, car with the windows closed...)

Strawberry Rhubarb Fruit Leather
  • 2 lbs rhubarb, washed and sliced into one inch pieces
  • 1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 1/4 cup honey
Combine all ingredients in a large pot or frying pan and simmer, uncovered, until the rhubarb is softened.
Blend rhubarb mixture with a stick blender, or add in small batches to a food processor or blender.  Feel free to leave a few chunks to add texture to the fruit leather.
 If you are using a food dehydrator, you will want to coat the trays with a small amount of olive oil.  Then, thinly spread the rhubarb mixture on the trays.  This recipe got me just about three trays worth.  Unfortunately, I only have two trays, so I mixed the remaining puree with a few shots of vodka and stuck it in the freezer to make a slushy.  In retrospect, that might have been the best part!

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