Cultivating and Preserving Rhubarb

 

Rhubarb is a fantastic low maintenance perennial garden vegetable that comes back every year stronger and more productive than the last. Grown for its tart petioles (leafstalks), rhubarb is most commonly considered a fruit in the United States and is typically used in baking. Use it to stretch strawberry preserves, add a little zing to savory dishes as a sauce, make a satisfying cocktail, or just wash it off with the hose and eat it straight out of the garden. As kids my sister and I would routinely sneak stalks from our aunt Brenda’s rhubarb plant. We’d sprinkle them with salt, plop down on her back steps and munch. It wasn’t until recently that I had ever eaten cooked rhubarb in any form, I’d turn my nose up thinking it was something to be crunched raw. But I’ve fallen in love with the unique flavor it brings to almost everything, especially pies.

Rhubarb Patch

Cultivation:

To give your plants a great start select a well drained location that is seldom disturbed in the garden for your rhubarb to live– the plants will be productive for 5 years or many more. Mounds or raised beds amended with compost make the ideal home for rhubarb. Plant crowns two inches below the soil, at least 3 feet apart, and mulch them with straw to keep the weeds down. Ample space is needed as the plants will get quite large when mature. The first year after planting you wont want to harvest any stalks, as tempting as it can be. You want the plant to focus on growing a strong root system, not growing stalks. In the second year harvest for only 1-2 weeks, when the plant is in its third year you can harvest for 8-10 weeks and this is considered a full harvest. Only harvest 1/3rd of the plant at a time, taking too much can cause the plant stress and it wont be as productive. By August you should be leaving the plant alone so it can send enough nutrients to the crown to prepare for the impending winter months. When harvesting pull stalks from the crown – don’t cut them off. This action helps to keep the plant productive and healthy. Remember to remove the leaves before consuming as they contain high levels of oxalic acid which is toxic to humans. After 5 years of full harvest you can dig up the crown and divide it into 4-6 pieces, so long as each piece has a strong bud. replant the cuttings to revive your patch or give them to friends to spread the rhubarb love. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial, and doesn’t require mulching or any other sort of babying to make it through our tough Michigan winters, which is great because we all have enough to deal with as it is.

Common Issues:

Sometimes you may notice in the spring that your rhubarb is trying to flower, as soon as you see flower heads, cut them back to the crown. Again, you want the plant to focus on being vegetative and making leafstalks for you to eat, not reproducing. I highly suggest spending a little more money for a propagated variety (Canada Red for example), these plants are started from splitting a crown, rather than a cheaper plant that was started by seed. Rhubarb started by seed is prone to bolting, (or wanting to go to seed) as soon as conditions are right you will see them forcing up flower heads and you will have to continually battle for petiole production. Stress can also cause your rhubarb to flower. Planting crowns too close together so the plants have to compete for space can cause even a nice variety to want to go to seed. Weeds should be kept down around the plants with the use of straw or grass clipping mulch. Also all patches of wild curly dock need to be removed from the area, since they are in the rhubarb family and carry many of the same diseases that plague rhubarb.

Rhubarb Ready For The Freezer

Preserving the harvest:

Preparing your rhubarb harvest for for preservation is crazy easy, and it’s probably one of my favorite things about it, simply…

  • Pull Stalks
  • Rinse and chop into 1” pieces
  • Arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet
  • Freeze 4 hours or overnight
  • Remove from cookie sheet and dump into freezer safe container of your choice

To use after freezing:

Always measure for your recipe while the food is still frozen, then allow it to thaw to room temperature . Drain excess water then use in your recipe as directed. This little tip makes all the difference when cooking with frozen produce.

How Our Days Actually Start, Plus Easy Morning Muffins

Every morning at 6:30 AM on the dot our youngest son wakes the whole house up crying for milk. Then it begins. Our older twin boys wake up. They too begin crying for milk. While I’m warming the milk of the first crying boy, the second boy says that he has to go potty. I tell him to go potty. He whines that he can’t unzip his jammies, so while holding the first crying boy, I kneel down and attempt to unzip the jammies without dropping the first boy that’s yelling “Mewk! Mewk!” that he can plainly see is ready from his vantage on my hip. Finally the jammies are off and the milk is handed off to the first boy. The third boy comes out of the bedroom half asleep and asks for his sippy cup of milk. I attempt to put the first boy down on the floor, he is having none of it and insists on laying in our bed. I pour one milk with one hand and I’m screwing the lid back on when the second boy yells “Mommy I need heeeeeeewp” from the bathroom. I hand the milk to the third boy, yell “hang on!” to the second boy, plop the first boy down on the couch and throw a blanket on him and go find out what could possibly be going wrong in the bathroom. The second boy is stuck on the toilet because the stool wasn’t pushed up correctly, I rescue him and while I’m helping him put on his undies the third boy comes in asking to watch a “show show show”. I put in The Land Before Time, while I’m skipping through all of the previews the second boy comes up to me and say that he needs milk, I push play. I’m pouring the milk when the third boy runs up to me shouting “potty!”. I hand the milk off to the second boy and tell him to watch the show, I help the third boy go potty. I’m helping him put his undies on when the second boy comes to me and says “mom….I can’t watch this” to which I reply “tough”. Crying ensues. I point out that the show has a t-Rex in it and all is well. I go back to the bedroom shake my husband to wake up, he gets up and gets around for the day (we take turns doing morning) and I get dressed, I shut both bedroom doors. I manage to have my bra on just in time before the first boy busts in the room and shouts “MOM! BOOBS!” I realize I forgot to lock the door. He climbs up on the bed and the stench of a morning diaper deuce hits my nostrils. I finish getting dressed and take care of the first boys dirty butt.

Blueberry Muffin

With mornings like this, I like really simple breakfasts with even simpler clean up. If the breakfast is hand-held and I don’t have to pick up and wash plates even better! For a while now I have been taking our families favorite recipes dissecting them and storing them for quick assembly. One of my favorites in the morning is muffins of any flavor or size. They’re sweet so the kids love them and I can sneak all kinds of fruits and veggies into them to make myself feel like a mom that’s got it together. I mix the dry ingredients in a wide mouth quart jar, write “muffin mix” on the top along with the cook temperature and time. On the underside of the lid I write the dry ingredients, so I can re-fill the mix without having to dig through my recipe cards. I realize coming from the “Jiffy Mix” state, this isn’t really earth-shattering new information here, everyone can make a muffin mix. It’s what I do with the muffin mix that makes it amazing. If I think about it the night before I will get out a 2 cup package of the pumpkin puree I have in the freezer and get it thawing. In the morning I can whip up a pan of spectacular pumpkin muffins. Want blueberry? Add 2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, or whatever fruit you’ve got that’s muffinable.

The Mix:

2 Cups All purpose flour

2 tsp. Baking powder

½ tsp. Salt

¾ Cup sugar

Store in an air tight container (a quart jar works nicely)

When you’re ready to muffin preheat your oven to 375 and add:

½ cup melted butter

2 eggs

½ cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups fruit/berries of choice

Bake for 20-25 min

Makes 12 + regular sized muffins

Some of our favorite variations:

Pumpkin Spice Muffins– Omit milk and add ¼ cup maple syrup, 2 cups pumpkin puree, 1 tsp pumpkin spice.

Cranberry Orange Muffins– Add ¼ cup orange juice, 2 Tbs orange zest, 1 Tbs honey, 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries. Sprinkle with raw sugar before putting batter in the oven.

Honey Oat– 1 cup rolled oats pulsed in food processor about 5 times, 1 cup chopped nuts if desired, ¼ cup honey, 2 Tbs ground flax, 1 tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp nutmeg. Sprinkle with oats, nuts, & brown sugar before putting batter in the oven.

Chocolate Zucchini: ¼ cup cocoa powder, 2 cups grated zucchini, 1 cup chocolate chips + more for tops.

Banana: 3 smashed ripe bananas, 1 tsp cinnamon.

Curing Bacon At Home

For hundreds of years people have been salting, curing, and smoking bacon to preserve it. In the days before the refrigerator nearly all meats were cured in some way shape or form and it was common for households to have their own smokehouse. These days with the convenience of grocery stores, the art of home charcuterie has gone by the wayside in favor of paper thin, limp, boring bacon. The good news is it’s making a comeback with folks who want to take control of their food, and it is way easier than you think! With a few basic ingredients and a pork belly you have the chance to experiment with flavors and bite into some of the most delicious bacon that has ever graced your plate.

Bacon fresh from the smoker.

If you don’t raise your own pork, call or stop by your favorite butcher shop and ask for a pork belly. You may find that you need to place an order, but a few days wait is a small price to pay. I recommend a 5 pound belly for your first try. While you are at your butcher, ask them if they sell Pink Curing Salt (Cure no. 1 is what you will need for this bacon) This is what cures the bacon and it is necessary to ensure the safety of your final product. Some butchers will sell it to you in a 4 oz package, which is more than enough to cure a 5 pound pork belly. If you cannot find Pink Curing Salt in a store, you can easily find it online in any quantity you desire.

Belly, spices & cure
Rub and press the spices & cure into every crack and crevice in the pork belly.

Pink Curing Salt is tinted pink to avoid confusion with table salt (Do not confuse with Pink Himalayan salt!) It contains sodium nitrite and sodium chloride which staves off food-borne illnesses like botulism & listeria. -You’re probably thinking ”aren’t nitrates supposed to be bad for you?”. According to the FDA so long as they are used in the correct amounts these nitrates are proven to be safe. You also may be thinking: “Why can’t I do this without nitrates?”. The recipes that say they are nitrate free utilize celery juice in the curing process. (Those gray nitrate free hotdogs at the store look really yummy don’t they?!) Celery contains naturally occurring amounts of nitrates, so they aren’t really “nitrate free”. Secondly, the amount of nitrates in celery isn’t standard. The nitrate levels in one bunch of celery can be different from the next due a number of factors: where it was grown, the nutrient level of the soil etc. all effect the quantity of nitrates it contains. This variance in nitrate levels is why I value the consistency of commercially produced Curing Salts when curing meats safely for my family. Unfortunately botulism is a horrible thing that really does happen, and I take it seriously.

I’m really excited to share my recipe for homemade meat candy…um…I mean bacon with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. I also hope you will discover a new hobby!

Maple Bacon Recipe:

The amounts of Salt, Sugar, and Curing Salt are absent since the amount of these ingredients varies depending on the actual weight of your pork belly. BEFORE BEGINNING to ensure accuracy I recommend weighing all ingredients. I got a digital scale from Amazon for a very reasonable price. Head on over to this fantastic cure calculator to convert your pork belly’s weight from pounds to grams then simply enter the new number in the cure calculator to get accurate weights for salt, sugar, and cure, then continue.

  • One pork belly (about 5 pounds)
  • In a small bowl combine the following:
  • Maple Sugar
  •  Kosher Salt
  • 2 Tablespoons Ground Black Pepper
  • 2 ½ teaspoons paprika
  • Cure no. 1
  1. Rinse the pork belly with cold water, pat dry. Rub the curing mixture over the entire surface of the pork belly.
  2. Place the rubbed pork belly in a 2 gallon zip-lock bag, rest it on a rimmed cookie sheet and pop it in the refrigerator.
  3. Once every day flip the bag of pork belly to rest on its other side and give it a good massage. Repeat this process for 7 days.
  4. On day 8 remove the pork belly from the bag and rinse it off in cold water and pat dry. Place it on a rack on top of a cookie sheet to catch any possible drips and return it to the fridge, uncovered for another 24 hours.
  5. Smoke the now cured pork belly (I like to use maple or apple wood) until an internal thermometer reading reaches 150 degrees (it takes about 2 -3 hours, check it frequently)
  6. While the bacon is still warm from the smoker, sprinkle it with a very light dusting of maple sugar.
  7. Allow the bacon to cool completely in the refrigerator before cutting. It makes it a lot easier to cut. Cut to preferred thickness by hand or with a meat slicer. Package in desired amounts, store in freezer for future use.
%d bloggers like this: