Rhubarb. A harbinger of spring. Staple in pies. Plant of giant leaves. My first experience with rhubarb was when I was in 5th or 6th grade (it was a long time ago). Our entire class went on a retreat or camp for a few days. We did odd things not generally associated with school. One of the “classes” I participated in was wild edible plants. Another was Indian food where I sampled rattlesnake; yes, it does taste like chicken. We identified and sampled many plants, including rhubarb. Although the leaves are poisonous, the stocks are not; however, they are bitter. After sampling far too much raw rhubarb I did not feel that well. My next adventure with rhubarb was not until I was in graduate school.
One summer in Maine a friend brought over a big bag of rhubarb. Not being a plant we were used to dealing with we had to find uses beyond a pie or two. After scouring recipes we decided to try rhubarb chutney; chutney being another thing we were not very familiar with at the time. Since that first experiment with rhubarb chutney it has become a favorite. We hoarded the dwindling supply while we pursued other options after leaving Maine. It is great on cheese and crackers and as a side for pork and chicken.
We were a bit overwhelmed by all the other produce that came in last summer to get to canning it then. We also don’t generally harvest enough at one time to make a whole batch or two. For these reasons we clean the rhubarb, slice it into about 2″ pieces, and freeze it in vacuum bags. Having seen how fast the rhubarb is growing this spring we decided we better make last year’s into chutney.
Last weekend we made two double batches. The original recipe calls for raisins. The chutney is great with raisins, but we wanted a little variety. We made one double batch with blueberries. We made the other double batch with 1/2 raisins and 1/2 pitted cherries. We also substituted Aleppo pepper for the cayenne pepper. In the coming weeks we will try a batch with dried blueberries. Like usual, we processed the jars an extra five minutes to account for altitude. A couple of us also want to try some with a few hot peppers. Maybe we will try that mid-summer when our hot peppers will be harvestable. If we get the crop it looks like we might we might also have to find a few new culinary uses.
The rhubarb we are growing in our little garden comes from Maine and Vermont, both from long-time friends. The variety from Maine is a green type, and is from the friend who gave us the big bag oh so many years ago. The variety from the friend in Vermont is the more traditional red. The rhubarb is starting to take hold in the garden. This spring we can see a few new clumps along with the old.
Picking rhubarb is a bit of an art. You can harvest as the season progresses and the plant keeps growing. I have read stalks harvested mid-summer are better for chutney and that type of thing because they generally have lower moisture levels. To harvest rhubarb you have to pull, not cut, the stem off the plant. If you pull too much you can damage the plant. If you don’t pull enough you leave your future chutney in the ground.
The leaves from a mature rhubarb plant can be very large. Large enough that they can be used as hats to protect the gardener from the hot summer sun. Historically we have not used the leaves for anything, including not composting them. I think we can compost them safely so we can do that this summer. I have also read that if the leaves are boiled with water, then strained after the mixture has cooled, and soap flakes are added, the mixture can be used as a natural aphid control. We might have to try that this summer as our roses and wisteria usually get aphids.