Tuesday, Feb 20, 2018
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Once-plain rhubarb makes a culinary comeback

Rhubarb is the new parsnip.

Just as root vegetables became the darling of chefs and glossy food magazines in recent years, now it's rhubarb's turn for a comeback. The tart, red-stemmed plant that once grew in almost every northern Ohio back yard is showing up lately in fancy restaurants paired with meats, converted to a syrup for a martini, and revisited as a dessert.

Years ago, rhubarb was one of the signs of spring for winter-weary Ohioans. Easy to grow and bountiful in our climate, it traditionally appeared in pies, crumbles, and compotes. It filled in some crucial weeks as a fresh food before strawberries came on.

Actually the seasons of rhubarb and strawberries overlap in Ohio, accounting for a host of recipes for jam and pies that combine the tart vegetable known as the "pie plant" with the sweetness of ripe strawberries.

Chef Mike Bulkowski of Findlay's acclaimed Revolver Restaurant remembers that growing up in Findlay, he was introduced to rhubarb paired with strawberries.

"I didn't like it. I always thought it ruined a perfectly good strawberry pie," he recalled. "Some people are put off by the texture."

He's changed his mind in recent years. Following a commitment to use local products in season, he's purchased rhubarb from the Lawrence Place east of Findlay and had two rhubarb-based dishes on the May menu at Revolver.

"I've used it lately in things that might normally suggest lemons or limes," he said, referring to the high acidity rhubarb has in common with citrus.

He has used rhubarb instead of lime as part of a Vietnamese-inspired appetizer, though, which also includes fried bone marrow, bean sprouts, and shitake mushrooms.

A fresh tart being offered this month pays respects to the area's history of rhubarb desserts.

Once only available in springtime to home gardeners, rhubarb is now found fresh in the produce section of supermarkets year-round. But it is so easy to grow that anyone with a sunny strip next to the garage could harvest enough to satisfy a family and have plenty left over to give to neighbors and to freeze for use later.

"It's perfectly suited to our climate," explains Wood County Extension educator Alan Sundermeier.

Rhubarb needs to spend some time during the winter below 40 degrees F. to establish a dormancy cycle-that's easy enough in Ohio. It thrives in well-drained soil and the cool temperatures of spring and long stalks grow from April through May and sometimes well beyond.

"Most older gardens have some," says Mr. Sundermeier. "It doesn't take much room and its season is over before there are insects out and about. It's hard to kill it. Some patches last for decades."

The plant is a heavy feeder and enjoys a fall dose of compost, but otherwise needs little care.

Garden centers sell rhubarb plants, but the most popular method of propagation is to get a "start" from an existing plant. Best done in fall or spring with a mature parent plant, the home gardener digs up the rhizomes that are the roots for the rhubarb and cuts them into four or five pieces, each of which can be moved to a new home.

When I started a new job in Ohio, I mentioned at work that I missed not having rhubarb. The next day, there was a coffee can with a chunk of dirt-caked root material and some leaves on my desk - from Dave Berelsman's parents' house in Delphos. That plant is still in my yard fifteen years later and has sent off "children" of its own to my parents' house, my sister's home in Maine, and my brother's in Delaware County.

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