I picked what I think is the last of my rhubarb the other day. The stalks were skinny and green, with a tiny blush of red at the bottom. The leaves were turning brown at the edges. There was, however, still life in those babies, so into the freezer they went, washed and chopped, to fuel winter experiments.
In the meantime, I am plotting for next spring. I have rhubarb patch envy. My plants are scattered all over the backyard, in struggling outposts far from the mother plant. The stalks never get any bigger than a half-inch in diameter. The leaves barely peek above the tall grass.
It’s time to up my rhubarb game. On a summer visit to Stepping Stone, Carole Kroening and Jim Tredger’s homestead on the Pelly River, I learned how.
Carole and Jim’s rhubarb is prodigious, a four-by-four-metre patch of waist-high plants that yield stalks as thick as a child’s wrist and as rosy as an August sunset. Carole told me the secret. Tip: it is not benign neglect.
In the spring, after the snow has melted, flood the rhubarb patch with water. Keep watering faithfully all summer long. Make sure the plants have six hours of full sun every day. Pull up those straggly outposts. Rhubarb, if allowed, will spread everywhere, but those outposts won’t yield the best crop.
Pick rhubarb by pulling the stalks from the ground, not cutting them. Nip flowers in the bud. Pick the biggest stalks and give the younger ones time to grow.
I’m in. The outposts are toast. I’m pulling them up. I’ve prepared a bed in a sunny spot to which I’m going to move three strong, healthy plants. I’m taking a chance and doing that now, at the end of July. Carole said that the late Ingrid Wilcox, the beloved and knowledgeable Yukon gardener, tended not to transplant anything in the Yukon after July 1, in order to give plants enough time to establish their roots. But as another gardening neighbour said you can’t kill rhubarb. So I’m risking it.
In two to three years, with luck, I might have a rhubarb patch that could stand up and be proud.
The Stepping Stone cupboards are filled with jars of Jim’s stewed rhubarb. Every breakfast starts with stewed rhubarb and porridge. For dessert, all summer long, there are rhubarb crisps, pies and squares. Every summer there is a new rhubarb experiment.
This year Carole and I invented a rhubarb barbecue sauce, inspired by a couple of recipes we found online, which we mixed and matched and livened up with our own combo of spicy aromatics. We think the result is pretty good. No, really good. Try it on burgers, sockeye salmon, bison ribs or grilled spatchcocked chicken. Serve it with scrambled eggs, or put a bowl on the table when you serve French fries. If you make the full batch, you’ll be eating barbecue all winter long.
- 8 cups chopped rhubarb (fresh or frozen)
- 2 cups brown sugar, divided
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 large onions, diced
- 16 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 4 cups crushed tomatoes (or 1 28-oz can)
- 2 cups blackstrap molasses
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare 12 to 14 250 ml jars and their lids for canning.
- Combine rhubarb and 1 cup brown sugar in a roasting pan. Stir and roast in the oven until tender, about 20 minutes.
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it shimmers, add onions and sauté until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes.
- Stir in spices and tomato paste until thoroughly combined. Stir in the rest of the brown sugar, the roasted rhubarb and all remaining ingredients. Once sauce is bubbling, reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 15 minutes.
- Remove sauce from heat and blend thoroughly with an immersion blender, scraping down the sides of the pot with a spatula.
- Return the potful of sauce to the burner and partially cover with the lid—this is to protect yourself against exploding bubbles. Simmer until the sauce is the consistency of thick ketchup, about 5 minutes.
- Pour into hot, sterilized jars. Seal and process in a boiling water bath for 12 minutes. Cool jars on a rack. Refrigerate any jars that don’t seal.
You can halve or quarter this recipe to suit the amount of rhubarb, time and ambition you have on hand.