By Jen Ransom, for the Redoubt Reporter
Rhubarb is a favorite of mine. I have one permanent bed that gets so much rain
runoff that it drowns most plants I’ve tried to plant there. But rhubarb favors wet soil, albeit well-draining soil is best, and has found a home in the first bed we ever created at our first home. Before we realized the drainage problem, of course.
Used in cooking, rhubarb also doubles as a decorative plant. The key to using it as both is to cut the flower stalks before they really take off. If the plant is allowed to flower, much of the nutrients go into creating seed, leaving little for stalk production. Only the stalk of the plant is eaten, as the leaves are toxic, though the “Alaska Gardening Guide” by Ann Roberts says it is safe to throw the leaves in the compost pile. I haven’t died yet eating yields dressed with my compost, so I guess Roberts is correct.
Eager to start the first of my garden harvesting, I recently pulled (not cut, which causes rot) a couple stalks to add in as filler to a cranberry mango jam I was making. I’d love to write the detailed recipe, but it was more of a “fruit-I-have-left-in-the-freezer” jam to use up last fall’s cranberries and replenish my jam supply, which had run empty before this season.
Half-asleep and entertaining two kids, it went something like this: Three cups of whatever fruit I had around, a half packet of fruit pectin and three cups of honey and sugar. Cook until thick. Put in sterilized jars and pray it will set.
I added in some nutmeg and cinnamon to taste, figuring it would go well with Thanksgiving cranberries. Rhubarb has a slightly sour taste, so I figured the mango (added at the last minute) would help with the sweetness without having to add more sugar. Plus, I needed a half cup more of fruit. It worked, and we’ve been enjoying the jam.
Collecting the rhubarb also lifted my spirits, harvestwise. I got so many seeds into the ground late this year much of my harvesting will be done late.
Rhubarb is a vegetable-used-as-fruit and prefers nitrogen-rich soil, so some of my composted manure made its way around the plant. I’ll top-dress with a bunch this fall to really help the bed along. For those lacking the manure, or the stomach of collecting animal waste (there is now an eco-gardening movement using human waste, coined humanure, but even I can’t stomach that one), any fertilizer high in nitrogen will do. Those who don’t have a rhubarb patch should be able to come across some easily from a generous neighbor. The plant bounces back and one usually has more than needed, so don’t feel bad asking for a splitting when you notice them dealing with overgrown perennials.
For those ready to harvest their rhubarb, it is best processed right away — better to grab only a few stalks at a time, chop them up and throw them in a freezer bag than let an entire batch sit on the counter for an afternoon, as the stalks dry out fast.
Never take more than one-third of a plant’s stalks at a time. Collect when they are about a half inch thick. More will grow back in its place, so get used to trying different recipes.
My favorite is rhubarb compote (much like applesauce) over ice cream on a hot summer day, but I do try to freeze a bit for rhubarb-strawberry pie in the winter, when the rich, warm taste reminds me of our short but sweet Alaska summer.
Here’s a recipe for rhubarb cake. I’ve lost track of who gave me this, but darn, it’s tasty!
- 4 cups diced rhubarb (apples can be used in place of, or in combination with, rhubarb)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup oil
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup whole-wheat flour
- 1 cup white flour
- 2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 cup Craisins
Mix fruit and sugar together, let stand 15 minutes. Combine oil and vanilla and stir well. Combine flour, soda, cinnamon and salt in large bowl. Add oil and vanilla mixture. Then add the fruit/sugar mixture and stir until well blended. Stir in Craisins and nuts. Pour into a greased and floured 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Sprinkle cinnamon/sugar mixture on the cake while it is still warm from the oven. Cool and cut into squares.
The Green Beet explores environmentally friendly, economical and often quirky ways to enjoy Alaska’s gardening and gathering season, while showcasing columnist and lifelong Alaskan Jen Ransom’s gardening wins and failures as she tries each season to grow a proper green thumb.