Stalking Rhubarb

What an odd spring we have had here in Colorado! April was lovely and sunny, perfect for getting the garden plotted out and sown, but May was unseasonably cool and rainy—good for the water table, but the low soil temperatures have kept many of our plants from sprouting. Even some of the trees here have barely started leafing out, and June is right around the corner! In the same vein, our rhubarb plants have been taking their sweet time to fill out, but in the last week or two, they suddenly decided to push up flower stalks. So we snuck outside between thunderstorms and cut an armload of rhubarb to cook up.

My parents’ rhubarb plants apparently don’t ever get red stalks, which makes it a little bit of a guessing game when to harvest them. Trimmed of their toxic leaves, they look an awful lot like celery, but they were juicy and sour, so I guess our timing was alright. After filling a gallon bag with peeled and diced rhubarb, the first order of business was a batch of jam. We opted for the classic combination of strawberries and rhubarb, admittedly in part to improve its appearance with some cheery red.

I selected a low-sugar, pectin-free recipe—2 pounds of berries, 1 pound of rhubarb, a cup of water, a juiced lemon (with its peel and seeds in a cheesecloth baggie), a cinnamon stick, and just 1 1/3 C organic sugar. It made a very flavorful and pleasantly tangy jam that resisted setting up, so eventually I broke down and added a tablespoon of low-sugar pectin to help it gel. With these amounts, we ended up with 5 half-pint jars of jam.

The next day, I used more rhubarb to make a batch of jam featuring cherries (also frozen, since it isn’t cherry season quite yet). This was a very similar recipe to the strawberry version, but it used just 1 pound of cherries to 1.5 pounds of rhubarb, just based on what I had available. I also stirred in vanilla sugar and a few tablespoons of honey that needed using up. The cherry jam seemed to set up faster than the strawberry batch, which might just have been because of the slightly smaller amounts; in any case, it cooperated nicely and filled 4 more half-pint jars with jam that was both tangy and just sweet enough, with a quarter-cup leftover to gobble up on warm spelt English muffins.

Canners will know that making jam produces foam on top of the fruit as it boils, which is often skimmed off to promote better texture and appearance in the finished jars. I had a few tablespoons of this in a ramekin, and decided to pair it up with some freshly cultured yogurt and a drizzle of honey for a light spring dessert with lovely colors and just a touch of fruit flavor.

There is still rhubarb in the refrigerator, and even more in the backyard, and I have grand plans for canned rhubarb-ginger or rhubarb-orange jam, rhubarb sauce for ice cream, rhubarb muffins with crystallized ginger, rhubarb crisp or rhubarb custard pie, rhubarb-braised brisket, rhubarb mostarda for pork chops, and maybe even rhubarb syrup!

Update 5/25/11: I shared a smoothie and some jam-slathered English muffins with Nolan for breakfast, and noticed that he was very carefully nibbling around the edges and avoiding the jam. He is just like me in some ways! 🙂 As a picky eater, I have never cared much for jam because the texture is so uncertain: chunky, stringy, seedy, jello-y. When I make jam myself, I make sure to strain berries that are full of seeds and crush everything up pretty well. These jams cooked just long enough to give a mostly smooth texture, and I thought they were perfect!

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