Alongside the chives, the rhubarb began to reach little red-green pokers through the half-frozen earth about a month ago. When I turned the soil to get ready for planting a few weeks ago, I went carefully around the little clump of hand-sized leaves. Their lone presence in that section of the garden was a bittersweet reminder of the harsh realities of New England Spring: only a sinewy pioneer with poison-laced leaves ventures out in April, but there it is, with its bold rich colors bravely settling the bare planes of my back yard.
Rhubarb takes a little longer than chives to be ready for harvest; since you do have to wait past the leaves for the stems to be about finger-thick (they’re usually at least 4 inches long by then). But as soon as you have enough to add up to about ¼ pound (six little stems around this time of year), you can start to snip them off. The more you snip, the more they’ll grow back. I cut off the leaves right there in the garden and toss them onto the compost pile or into a corner (they decompose quite quickly).
Rhubarb isn’t native to New England. Like so many of us who thrive here, it arrived from Asia via Europe probably in the early 19th century. And though rhubarb roots (rhizomes) have been used in Chinese and Greek medicine for thousands of years, the stems only became popular in food around the 17th century, when sugar was becoming a regular ingredient. Rhubarb stems are sour on their own, and most rhubarb recipes are dessert recipes that call on plenty of sweetener and often also a sweet spring fruit like strawberries or raspberries. Last week I jumped on that band wagon and made a delicious rhubarb-strawberry crumb cake that I found in Martha Stewart Living, but my favorite use of rhubarb is actually in savory dishes. A few years ago, overwhelmed by the production of my two huge rhubarb plants (I passed one off on Renee last year and have been much happier since), I started putting rhubarb into everything. In stir-fry, sautéed with greens, and in soup, it’s pretty much a disaster. But in barbecue sauce and glazes, it’s fantastic.
Rhubarb Barbecue Sauce
The super-easy way to do this is to take a bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce, and put it into a pot with about six rhubarb stems, chopped into ½-inch pieces. Bring to a simmer, stirring often, and cook until the rhubarb is mostly dissolved, about 20 minutes. The rhubarb adds a wonderful tangy depth to any barbecue sauce.
Slightly more adventurous, but quite fun and still pretty easy, is to make your own rhubarb barbecue sauce from scratch. You can mix and match these basic ingredients
About 1/3-cup tomato paste or ketchup
A few tablespoons Worstechire sauce
A few tablespoons Rice wine vinegar
A dash of Bourbon or another hard alcohol
Salt and pepper
Pinch of sugar or honey
6 stems rhubarb, washed and chopped into ½-inch pieces
Water to the consistency that you prefer (I like it thick, so I put in a scant ¼ cup of water)
Put everything into a pan, bring to a gentle simmer and cook until rhubarb are mostly dissolved, about 20 minutes. You can use this as a marinade or as a baste-on or both! I think it’s best with chicken but it’s very good with beef and pork as well.