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Taft Midway Driller - Taft, CA
  • ‘Tis the season for backyard rhubarb

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  • My life is whole. The rhubarb patch is back.
    Once upon a time, nearly every family in town grew rhubarb, usually out back in a sunny spot behind the garage. Both sides of my grandparents had them, and my first gardening and cooking experience came from their patches.
    It always looked like we weren’t going to have any. Then one sunny and cool day in April, bingo, rhubarb popped. Almost overnight, 2-foot-wide crinkled leaves appeared, followed by foot-long, ruby red stalks, ready usually in late May.
    My job was to keep off the beetles and water those guys.
    The key is hitting the harvest just right. Too late and rhubarb is stringy rubber. Too early and the sugars have not developed. My plan was to pick them when the stalks were about an inch wide and a foot long and red all over.
    There was a patch out back when we bought our 1918 house. It was suffering for sunlight as the trees had grown. It soon died off. Rats.
    This winter, I trimmed the trees, and last month, the rhubarb popped back. Amazing. It was just waiting, for 20 years. I picked the stalks last weekend, and we’re making strawberry-rhubarb jam for our friends.
    Your reward
    Rhubarb sauce is most famously described as “applesauce at 100 miles per hour.” It stars as a cold side dish to roast pork. It easily becomes a pie or tart filling. Indeed, even ripened, it is still tart. The sauce cans well in jars, ready to spread its strange flavor into the winter.
    Unique taste makes rhubarb a fine complement in berry jams, especially strawberries. It makes the fruit sing, not bad in a variety of freezer jams.
    How to grow
    Almost all rhubarb starts as transplants. Remember that the plant is more than 80 percent water. It began cultivation on the banks of the River Volga, and it requires damp soil. Keeping it wet is a key to a proper crop.
    The other key is organic nutrients. Mulching the plant with 3 inches of compost plus a tablespoon of organic fertilizer will do it. Then keep an eye out for leaf-eating bugs. Rabbits and deer usually shun its toxic leaves.
    Harvest the stalks by cutting close to the ground, but do not damage the mother plant. Never pull stalks. The plant needs the roots for next year. You may get a second crop by harvesting early. Follow this and the plants can last for many decades.
    The science
    Uncooked rhubarb is inedible. Its leaves contain toxins found in many plants and its stalks have concentrations of oxalic acid, which account for their terrible taste raw. Boiling the stalks tempers the acid and allows the sweet and tart flavor to develop.
    Page 2 of 2 - Medicinal quality
    When grandpa said, “Helen, we need some rhubarb,” he meant the world’s first laxative. A few tablespoons of rhubarb sauce definitely get the plumbing moving.
    Where to find it
    In late spring, you might find a few bunches of trimmed rhubarb stalks in your grocery. Better luck comes in local farmers markets and roadside stands, as ‘barb is one of the first cash crops of the season.
    Look for crisp, red stalks. Rubbery, smelly ones are well past prime. Store as you would celery in your crisper. Placing stalk tips in water helps preserve them.
    Reach Jim at 330-580-8324. On Twitter: @jhillibishREP
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