By Jennifer Kehoe
Times are a changin’ in Southcentral Alaska. April Fools’ Day, no joke, won’t happen again for another 300-some odd days. The sun shines long enough to make me miss my bedtime already and the Glenn is dotted with lovely looking mounds of trash. Remember, if you ski out to Portage Glacier on a bluebird afternoon in April, please wear sunscreen.
Yes, it seem to be that time. The trees are budding with green and we are in the midst of waiting for the glory of summer in Alaska. And what a better way to pass the time during the end of Breakup than to eat something fresh, colorful, and unique. May I present, last harvest’s rhubarb!
Rhubarb really is quite diverse. It resembles a pinkish celery stalk. It bakes into pies. The leaves are toxic for human consumption. In the garden it has two faces – a vegetable, perceived as a fruit. In the front yard, it blends in as random greenery (“what’s up edible yard?”). In Latin terms, it is the ‘root of the barbarians’. The Chinese grew it and the Romans thought the Chinese were barbaric, simple as that. The plant was used medicinally throughout the ages and apparently there is even a movie named after it. Rhubarb: The Millionaire Cat. The plot speaks of rich people and baseball teams and no, I have not seen it, although maybe I should. Any takers?
In Alaska, rhubarb is one of the crops that grows with a pretty high success rate. The yield is excellent, it is a perennial – that means it grows every year – and harvesting the stalks is absolutely satisfying. After grabbing hold of one down near the root, pull up gently whilst twisting. The stalk comes right out, clean and ready for consumption. Some people pull a shaker of salt out of their pocket at this moment, cover the stalk, and chomp the entire thing. The root area should look a bit like a spoon made out of soft, white meat. Again, don’t eat the toxic leaf (beware of the oxalic acid), and make sure to follow a rhubarb-growing guide. The plant is very easy to harvest, produces season-long, and requires no maintenance, but in order to ensure that it becomes healthy and abundant there a few practices one should look into as you nuture it into an adult.
Frozen treats, such as cranberries, watermelon berries, crowberries, blueberries, and rhubarb have kept my winter culinary expeditions lively, sweet, and tart. Rhubarb is a nostalgic food for me; my mother made rhubarb sauce, which is very similar to apple sauce, and rhubarb pie countless times throughout my childhood. I always thought that people who made rhubarb strawberry pie instead were weak, as they couldn’t handle the taste of rhubarb on its own. Unless sugar is added, rhubarb can be torturous in my opinion. Picture all of the enamel violently stripped from your teeth, ouch. Yet, in all honestly, rhubarb is just charming. A fun Plain Jane plant with a lot to offer the palate. If you have a bag of chopped rhubarb stalks in your freezer, you may already know the pleasure of whipping up a rhubarb coffeecake. If you don’t, I propose you cut and paste some rhubarb into your yard this spring and watch the magic unfold. If your housing situation does not allow you to grow your own food on location, but you do have transportation, check out Pyrah’s Pioneer Peak Farm in Palmer. For $1.50 per pound you can do one of the most wonderful activities that exists in this world: Pick-Your-Own! They accept cash, credit, WIC, and Senior coupons as payment.
Either way, when the kitchen counter is clear and the taste buds await the kiss that turns winter into Breakup and Breakup into our beloved summer, celebrate your rhubarb. When you party with it, who knows what will happen?
Rhubarb Leather: You need a dehydrator. Cook rhubarb stalk chunks with water and sugar. Add something strange, like fresh shaved nutmeg. Pour the mixture onto parchment paper and lay on dehydrator screen. Follow dehydrator directions and let the machine pull all of the water out, leaving you with a chewy, sour, scrumptious hiking/camping snack.
Rhubarb-Blueberry-Cayenne Compote: Throw 1 bag of frozen or fresh rhubarb and a few cups of your Alaskan blueberries into a pot. Turn the heat to medium and make sure the bottom doesn’t burn. After the contents start to melt there will be plenty of water. Add brown sugar to taste and a few dashes of cayenne, maybe a pinch of salt too. Heat until nice and gooey and serve on yogurt, ice cream, pancakes, oatmeal, bread and cheese, even meat, etc. or be brave and eat it plain.
Baked Rhubarb Desserts: Following your favorite baked good recipe, just throw some fresh or frozen rhubarb into the batter. You can also use a dehydrator to dry small pieces of rhubarb and those too can be thrown into batter. My favorite, in addition to rhubarb pie, is rhubarb crowberry coffeecake. For crowberries, just head into your backyard of the Chugach mountains late summer into fall for some picking.
Rhubarb Juice and Rhubeena-in-a-Rhubarbarita: Yes, a rhubarbarita is a rhubarb-flavored margarita. Cook chopped up rhubarb in a pot with a few cups of water. When the juice is good and pink and strong, strain the liquid out. This rhubarb juice is called rhubeena. Add some sugar perhaps. Then to make the rhubarbarita, follow an excellent margarita recipe and just add the rhubeena to taste. Yum! Hello midnight sunset! Courtesy of hungrytigress.com and localkitchenblog.com.
The small organic farms of Massachusetts filled Jennifer Kehoe’s childhood with a bounty of apples, maple syrup and fresh dairy. She grew up on Hindu chanting, herbal tinctures, kale and kombucha, which fermented in the kitchen cabinets. Living in Alaska has introduced her to a whole new side of simple, natural and local living and she is dedicated to learning and teaching about the art, history and science of self-sufficiency. Jennifer believes food should be pleasurable and fun, but that it is also a vital path to social, economic and environmental sustainability.