Rhubarb calls to me. It beckons me from wherever I am in the store. I can feel their siren-call echoing in my bones, pulling me towards their brilliantly colored stalks—shock-value pink. And like sirens they are indeed; beautiful, enticingly pink in color, they are gorgeous, but their sharp and shocking sourness is that unexpected crash on the rocky shores—a bit of whimsical danger. That’s also not to mention that they do, technically, present actual danger by their truly poisonous leaves. Nevertheless, it calls me. I can almost feel its presence in the store.
When I was younger both my grandmothers grew it in their garden. I remember Grandma Barb making Rhubarb Pie with it. I remember Grandma Z laying empty beer cans on their side underneath her plants to lure slugs inside and away from the pink petioles. Aside from them, I’ve never really known anyone to make a fuss over it. Outside of obligatorily chucking some into a strawberry pie, the adoration of rhubarb seems to have been left back in early-midcentury England. That is, until the movement towards eating not only locally, but seasonally started up again. I mean, what other fresh dessert-worthy produce is available in January or February?
(I first got this rhubarb plant in the fall of 2013. You have to give the plant a full growing season without taking a harvest. The following spring you can start to harvest from it—just be sure to never take more than a third of the stalks so the plant doesn’t die. The stalks should be about 1” thick, 10 – 12” long, firm and bright pink, though some green is to be expected. Just pull gently and twist a little at the base to free the stalk from the crown. It’s also a good idea to cover the plan with either a large bucket or old bed sheet if temperatures are going to get in the freezing range once the leaves emerge—if the leaves freeze, the toxin in them travels down into the stalk, turns black, and must be removed. I haven’t harvested from this one this year because it was transplanted last year so I was giving it a little bit more time to fill in)
Raw, their taste is a bit much; imagine a tart green apple mixed with the sourness or lemon, though without the puckering acidity, and the slight green taste of an under ripe strawberry, but without the unyielding bite—a good stalk is plump with juiciness. If you go to taste a piece of it for the first time, without any warning or bracing yourself first, you’ll be reeling. Some say, when enjoying it raw, to sprinkle with a bit of salt, sparingly, like you would watermelon or grapefruit to bring out its natural sweetness. I think all this does is tame its wicked ways slightly—kind of like putting King Kong in the cage.
Being from Michigan I was accustomed to seeing hothouse rhubarb as early as January. As one of the top 5 commercial rhubarb producers in the country, we were lucky enough to get it early, and it’s the early season and hothouse grown rhubarb that is best for crumbles and pies—it holds it’s shape much better when cooked, so leave later crops for jams and compotes (or custards, ice creams, sauces, cheesecake…). In fact, much of what we got then was grown underground or in total darkness; the lack of light means larger and taller stalks that are blindingly pink, reaching upwards to find whatever light they think they can, making their leaves compact and a color I can only describe as albino-chartreuse. Just imagine a dark, dark room, filled with giant florescent pink stalks spearing from the ground, almost illuminating the darkness; their taste in mind, it’s almost poetic. Those stalks retain their hot pink color when cooked, too, unlike field grown rhubarb which, even from the spring crop, pales to a faded rose color; not an issue of taste, just mere aesthetics.
If you look back at my Twitter feed you’ll see the same rhubarb crumble made the last few years in mid-February. Now being in Connecticut, I awaited the rhubarbs call. I started driving to different grocery stores every week, asking when it would be in. I impatiently awaited its arrival.
So when I finally found it was well stocked at one store… I may have went a little overboard in my purchase. But it’s just as well, really. I have extra to play and experiment with. It may not have been the stuff grown in the dark that I’m used to but to hell with it! One thing is for certain though—I’m making my crumble. I know a crumble isn’t exactly inventive, especially when it comes to rhubarb, and the flavor profile in it is a pretty classic one, but I don’t care. Sure, rhubarb has made new friends in recent years, but the heavy perfume of vanilla works so well with it; much like rhubarb, vanilla isn’t exactly sweet on its own, but with generous amounts of sugar, both become ethereal—something all their own. Almonds bring their own sweet, delicate flavor and crunch, and with some almond meal in the crumble topping the texture is phenomenal.
Although rhubarb’s tartness does need to be tamed a bit—easy enough to do with the aid of sugar and the heat from the oven—I do like to keep the crumble’s base a little tart, still. The crumble topping itself gets a little more sugar than normal to help offset this; this way the puckering sour of the rhubarb still has a presence, but gets balanced by the crunchy top.
Maybe one day I’ll even branch out into using rhubarb in more savory applications—I’ve heard it goes well with beef and lamb, which makes sense because it’s tart sourness would help cut the fatty-richness of the meats—but for now I am going to enjoy my find in the form of my Rhubarb & Almond Crumble. With some ice cream—vanilla is classic, strawberry brings out the fruitiness of the ‘barb, caramel is excellent—you’ll have a perfect spring dessert that has all the brightness of the season. What a way to bring in spring!
Don’t forget… I’m on BLOGLOVIN’