Born and raised in the tropics, I’ve enjoyed a plethora of fruits—from mango to pineapple to tamarind. Rhubarb wasn’t on my radar until I tasted strawberry-rhubarb pie at my first baby shower in Canada over thirty years ago. It was love at first bite, so I set out to find out more about this vegetable that works so well in fruit pies! (Ironically, I discovered that it was the ‘dark pink celery,’ I often ignored at the market because I had no clue what to do with it.) Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. There are two types of rhubarb
Two common varieties of this vegetable are the Cherry, with dark pink stalks, and the Victoria, with green stalks showing a hint of red. Don’t be misled by the colours—the green stalks can actually be less tart!
2. How to spot good rhubarb
Look for bright, crisp wide stalks with minimal bruising and white marks.
3. Only the stalks are edible
High levels of oxalic acid make the leaves toxic.
4. Rhubarb is delicate and prone to water loss
It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, but freezing is best if you want to keep it for longer. To freeze: cut rhubarb into 1-in. pieces and lay out on a baking sheet. Place sheet in freezer. Once frozen, store rhubarb in 2-cup portions in freezer bags (easier for future use). This way, it’ll be easier to measure out what you need, because the rhubarb won’t be stuck together.
5. Trim both ends of the stalk
Cut stalks wider than one inch in half. A pound of cut rhubarb yields 3 to 4 cups of chopped rhubarb. To chop rhubarb, cut the width of the stalk into 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch pieces.
6. Rhubarb is acidic
It is best to cook it in coated pans or glass baking dishes. Avoid using metal pans such as aluminum, copper or iron, as the rhubarb will turn brown and the pan will become discoloured.
7. How to thaw frozen rhubarb
When baking, thaw in a sieve over a bowl to discard excess liquid. Otherwise use it from frozen. Simply reduce the amount of liquid listed in the directions.
8. How to grow your own
Want an incredibly local, convenient and low-carbon supply chain for your cakes, pies and crisps? Rhubarb is super easy to grow, and an established plant will produce succulent and tart stalks for up to 20 years.
Plot it out Early in the spring, pick a spot that has good drainage and gets a few hours of sun. Mix compost or manure into the soil, and plant rhubarb crowns two to three feet apart (they will get big).
Cut away You can start to harvest the rhubarb in its second season (the plants need to establish their roots during the first summer). Cut stalks at the base of their stems when they are 12 to 18 inches long. As mentioned, the leaves can’t be eaten, but they can be composted.
Keep it growing Remove any flower stalks as they start to grow so that the plant will continue to produce edible stalks—that way, you can have a ready supply for several weeks. Onions, garlic and members of the brassica family (like kale and broccoli) make good companion plants. Divide plants every six to eight years. Surround them with a layer of mulch to keep the ground consistently moist.