I’ve neglected rhubarb season for weeks while I was digging ramps, and getting the garden beds ready for planting. I built two new raised beds (for beans, snap peas and asparagus) and I moved the kitchen garden bed after the new porch went up. I over order seeds and plants – I still have to find room for more broccoli rabe, golden beet, haricot verte and radicchio. So I agreed to take on a plot in the community garden. That’s where I planted the late season plants: potatoes, kale, collards, shallots, carrots and an experiment with growing quinoa.
Last week I went out to a friend’s farm and harvested 3 gallons of rhubarb stems. They are easy to gather, a firm tug while holding the stem releases the whole stalk from the ground. I pulled dozens of stalks and then cut the leaves from the tops to leave in the compost pile.
You will have heard that the leaves are poisonous. Oxalates are contained in all parts of rhubarb plants, but especially in the green leaves. In high enough concentrations oxalates can cause stomach irritation and kidney problems. The leaves of plants are higher in oxalate levels than the roots, stems, and stalks. Rhubarb stalks contain low levels of oxalates, so this does not usually cause problems. You’d have to eat many pounds of leaves to be lethal.
Oxalates are naturally-occurring chemicals found in plants, animals, and humans. In smaller doses oxalate ingestion can cause burning and swelling of the mouth and throat. Oxalate binds with calcium, creating calcium oxalate, which deposits in tissues and leads to inflammation and pain.
Foods that contain oxalates at the highest levels of oxalates are: Spinach, beet greens, parsley, and collard greens. Other examples of the most common sources: blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, kiwifruit, concord grapes, figs, tangerines, and plums. Almonds, cashews, and peanuts, cocoa, chocolate, and black tea. Okra, leeks and quinoa are among the densest vegetables. Celery, green beans, rutabagas, and summer squash are moderately dense in oxalates.
The basic rhubarb compote recipe
Around here strawberries (the ideal complement to rhubarb) are still a couple weeks away. The long spring rains have slowed their ripening. So it’s time to harvest as much rhubarb as possible, chopping and freezing it, bagged and ready for strawberries and for combining with other berries through the summer, and in the crisps of fall and winter.
Rhubarb is infamously tart, and widely thought to be impossible to eat without sweetening. Not true, because rhubarb can be made into crisp tart salads, and I’m working on some of those recipes without sugar (or with minimal sweetening). But my first impulse was to make a slightly sweet batch, a compote of sorts, to serve with vanilla ice cream and spoon over slivers of pound cake.
6 cups chopped rhubarb, raw or frozen
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 half vanilla bean
Options: 1 c of frozen strawberries, a pinch of sea salt
Cut rhubarb into two-inch lengths. Remove any long fibrous strands and discard. In a saucepan, combine rhubarb and sugar and heat until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb is soft but not completely broken-down. Remove from heat, remove the vanilla bean, and allow cooling before using as a topping for ice cream or in a cocktail.
The daiquiri starts with the rhubarb compote. Aperol is an option for my version of this Daiquiri but well worth seeing out a bottle. Out here in a rural village this is not an easy task. Geraghty liquors in Greenwich has been carrying it, packaged with a bottle of prosecco (a great value). They are always willing to order special items.
Aperol is an Italian aperitif, in the family of bitters (similar to Campari but sweeter). A unique formula first introduced in Italy a century ago, the Aperol recipe includes bitter orange, gentian and rhubarb. The bright orange-red color resembles the juice of rhubarb. A popular Venetian cocktail, the Aperol Spritz is made with Prosecco, Aperol and a splash of soda water.
To make the Rhubarb Daiquiri you need:
Prosecco and/or white rum
Of course, this is especially wonderful if you throw in a cup of ripe strawberries
Fill a blender with ice to the 5-cup mark. Add 1.5 cups of rhubarb compote, 2 or 3 ounces of Aperol (optional), 3 ounces of white rum, and 8 ounces of prosecco. For a lower alcohol level, skip the rum. Blend on high speed until the ice is completely ground into small particles. Taste and adjust the flavors and strength to your preference. Pour into glasses and garnish: with a spring of mint or a stem of rosemary, with a fresh strawberry, or a slice of blood orange.
Chill the unserved portion in the freezer. Blend again before serving.