by Cathy Erway
What’s crisp, tart, slender and an undeniable sign of spring? Stalks of ruby-red and green rhubarb! These perennial plants have just hit the markets from local farms, but don’t mistake them for celery — they’re best cooked in some fashion unless you want a permanent pucker-face for the rest of the day.
I found my first rhubarb of the season at Bill Maxwell’s farm stand (Maxwell’s Farm) at Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket last weekend. Immediately, memories rushed in from last year’s crop of blushed stalks — the jams and tarts we had and loved. The satisfying crunch of their fibrous veins giving way to a sharp knife’s thrust. The oozing juice that pooled from them when they were met with sugar and heat. The pleasant pairings of basil, mint and chile that peppered my previous concoctions with the rhubarb. They’re certainly unlike any other food we tend to eat, and are available only such a short part of spring — time to cherish!
Bill Maxwell is a career-changer turned farmer who left his job in the media to raise a small plot of vegetables in Warren County, New Jersey. Similar to the story of Bradley Farms (of the sorrel earlier this spring), Maxwell’s main outlet for its produce was the New York City Greenmarkets, from the beginning. He’s been a darling among chefs in the city for his heirloom and less-common produce choices, growing radicchio and lovage in addition to more familiar lettuces. The diversity and sheer quality of the farm’s bounty — check out the tomatoes and sweet corn later in summer — should be just good enough to convince the skeptics walking by to give them a try.
I gave the rhubarb a try, too, and combined with Maxwell’s strawberries, they turned out a beautiful pie. Bill says that rhubarbs — unlike strawberries — tend to take care of themselves year-round. As perennials, they grow back each spring, protruding from the warmed earth to sprout nearly three-foot stalks. Just don’t start your patch anywhere too wet, Bill warns: it takes good soil to keep them going year after year, and too much snow and ice can weaken them over the winter. They also grow wild, apparently, but I’ve yet to come across any in New York City’s public parks.
What else to do with the rhubarb aside from the famed pie? Bill suggests keeping it simple by boiling it down into a lipsmacking compote. You can keep it that way in the freezer to take out for any use later on, he says. At her Brooklyn-based jam business, Laena McCarthy of Anarchy in a Jar is currently selling a rhubarb-hibiscus jam.
“The great thing about rhubarb is that the sourness balances with sugar well, and allows you to add flavors without overwhelming,” she said. But for the color-conscious, a note: “One piece of advise is that if cooking with rhubarb stalks that are mostly green, add another element of color like hibiscus or strawberries, or else it will end up brown.”
I guess that explains why hibiscus is so often blended with these berries. It could also be that they’re both around the same time of year.
For those in search of more savory applications of rhubarb, I’ve compiled a few recipes. And those looking to sate the sweet tooth, a few more your way.
Columnist Cathy Erway hits the Brooklyn Greenmarkets for us every other week, picking out a particularly ravishing-looking seasonal ingredient, talking to the farmer who grew it, and speaking with a local chef about their favorite simple ways to prepare it.
Cathy is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, based on her two-year mission to forego restaurant food in the city and her blog, Not Eating Out in New York. Last spring, she launched a rooftop garden at Red Hook’s Sixpoint Brewery complete with chickens and repurposed keg planters, which is the basis of her second blog, Lunch at Sixpoint. She hosts a weekly podcast on Heritage Radio Network, Let’s Eat In, which has featured guests ranging from Reverend Billy to Mark Bittman. She has written for Saveur, The Huffington Post, Edible Brooklyn and Brooklyn Based, and has taught cooking classes at the Greenmarkets, the Brooklyn Kitchen and WholeFoods.