Usher in summer with rhubarb

Rhubarb (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Bright, vibrant-red stalks popping up in our garden are another sign that spring has at last arrived in the Adirondacks. A hardy perennial, rhubarb is really a vegetable, not a fruit, though it is primarily used in desserts and has been called “the pie plant”. This cool-season perennial, a member of the buckwheat family and a relative of wild sorrel, grows well in our northern woods. It has been cultivated in the mountains of northwest China and Tibet since 2700 BC, where it was used in Chinese folk medicine.

Fresh rhubarb is available from late winter through early summer. Look for fresh crisp pink or red stalks an inch or less in diameter; the thicker, greener stalks tend to be tough and fibrous, though this may also depend on the variety. One pound of rhubarb contains about 3-5 stalks but will yield less than one cup when cooked. If you grow your own, remove only a few stalks from each plant. Use a knife to cut the stems off where they come out of the ground. You can also snap them off with a rocking, twisting motion like you would snap a single celery stalk from the bunch. It keeps well in the refrigerator, wrapped in a damp paper towel or a plastic bag.

It is very easy to freeze; just cut it to the desired size and freeze in a plastic freezer bag. You don’t need to defrost it before using, just add it to the recipe directly from the freezer. We freeze some for use later in the year since the season is so short. Use frozen rhubarb to make freezer jam and in baked goods.

Rhubarb’s crisp stalks are 95% water with very few calories, though this is offset by the sugar necessary to counteract the natural tartness. It is a good diuretic and laxative, and contains fiber, potassium, vitamin C and minor amounts of other vitamins.

Discard the leaves before cooking, because the leaves and roots are poisonous, containing high concentrations of oxalic acid. The stems are great in pies, puddings, breads, jams, jellies, sauces, and refreshing beverages, though they must be cooked and sweetened. If you have a sweeter tooth than I, you may wish to increase the sugar in these recipes.

In addition to pies, crisps, and cobblers, rhubarb is good in muffins, bread puddings, relishes, jams, jellies, compotes and syrups – anything to which sugar can be added. Americans combine it with strawberries; the British, with ginger. I like maple syrup There are also recipes for rhubarb sauces for chicken or fish.

Rhubarb Maple Cream Cheese Cookies

Ingredients:

1/3 cup maple syrup

1 1/2 cup sliced rhubarb (1 or 2 stalks, depending on size) – divided

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup (one 8-ounce package) neufchatel cream cheese, softened

1 large egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup buckwheat or all-purpose or whole wheat flour (I used buckwheat)

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup rolled oats

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 directions.

Place 1/2 cup rhubarb, sugar and maple syrup in small saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add butter and melt. Remove from heat. Add cream cheese to soften.

In a small bowl, mix together flours, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, beat egg. Add contents of saucepan and beat. Beat with electric mixer. Beat in about half of the flour mixture. Beat in the rest by hand with a wooden spoon. Stir in oats. Stir in the rest of the chopped rhubarb.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing 2-inches apart.

Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, rotating halfway through, until golden. Let cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool.

Rhubarb and Apple Crisp with Maple syrup

Ingredients:

4 apples

2 – 3 cups sliced rhubarb

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

1/4 cup maple syrup

2/3 cup walnuts

Topping:

6 Tablespoons butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/3 cup ground walnuts

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup oats

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch-by9-inch baking dish.

Peel, core, and slice apples. Layer on bottom of dish. Top with rhubarb. Sprinkle with flour and drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle the walnuts over the top, if using.

To make the topping, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the brown sugar and stir to combine. Add the flours, ground nuts, cinnamon and salt. Stir in the oats, and mix well.

Spread the topping evenly over the fruit. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. If the top browns too quickly, lower the heat a bit and cover with aluminum foil.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author

Yvona Fast.

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