All week I’ve had recipes to kick-off rhubarb season. Today I wanted to briefly highlight some sources for local rhubarb and how to ensure the bunch you’ve selected is fresh and tasty.
1. Your neighbor’s backyard. Before making a trek to a local farm, it’s worth checking around the neighborhood for anyone that might have a rhubarb patch already growing. Rhubarb is notoriously prolific in the early spring, so much so that one plant can feed the whole family. The more you cut it the more it seems to grow. Consider expanding your local food hub by asking a neighbor to swap some of their rhubarb patch for tasty muffins or a jar of ketchup.
2. The farmer’s market. There were whisperings about asparagus and rhubarb at this weekend’s St. Paul Farmer’s Market. In the coming few weeks you’ll find bundles of rhubarb for $2-3 at nearly every produce vendor at your market. Depending on how soon it heats up around here, it should make a weekly appearance until late June.
3. Pick-your-own/Call-to-Order Farms. The Minnesota Grown Directory lists 17 sites with rhubarb, including 5 in the Metro area. Here’s a link to search for rhubarb in your area: http://www3.mda.state.mn.us/mngrown/searchresults.aspx?location=55130&distance=0&products=21. Many farms would love to have the company in the early less-busy season.
**Climbing on my soapbox for a note about supermarket rhubarb** It is possible to find rhubarb at your larger food retailers, however I’d caution you to the possibility of my screaming “IS THAT REALLY FRESH?!?!” at increasing volumes. Rhubarb is one of the more obvious examples of how picking and shipping produce long distances decreases quality and nutrition. By the time it’s hauled cross-country in a refrigerated truck, it’s not going to look or taste the same as fresh picked. Save your cash and buy it local.
How to Buy Rhubarb
Rhubarb should be prepared or refrigerated as close to picking as possible. Stalks will begin to brown on the ends and get rubbery as they age. When buying rhubarb choose crisp, firm stalks that do not have any peeling/dryness on bottom inch of cuttings. There’s not a huge benefit to buying with leaves on, since they are toxic and will have to be disposed of anyway.
Incidentally, there is no real connection between the ruby-red color and sweetness of the rhubarb; it’s only a cosmetic preference when it is later cooked. In general the darker the red color the better the appearance in your jams, desserts, and pies. If you want a strawberry red pie over a greeny/gray pie, select (and likely pay more for) the deep red stalks. Lastly, if you have to store it before use, refrigerate it in a tied plastic shopping bag, unwashed for 3-5 days. Much longer than that and the rhubarb will start to get slimy/rubbery/generally nasty. Freeze it if you don’t have the time to use it right away.
How to Grow Rhubarb
If you’d like to give a go at growing your own rhubarb there are a couple of good options. Rhubarb is a perennial that does best if divided every few years. If your source is a neighbor’s backyard, dividing a hunk from their patch is a simple way to get started. Many garden centers will have their seedlings and starter seed packets on closeout this time of year if starting from scratch is what you prefer.
Either way, choose a well-draining spot about 3′ by 3′ for your rhubarb patch. It will seem like a large area the first year, but by year 3-4 the extra space will be well worth it. No big concerns about soil type or feeding, just be sure to provide plenty of water during the spring and occasionally compost.
The information above comes from the U of M Extension website. There’s much more about growing rhubarb in Minnesota, including some troubleshooting for your rhubarb patch.