This year's cool summer has been great for growing rhubarb, a versatile plant that is taking a starring role this week at the Grand Rapids Farmers' Market. The idea came Patti and Arnold Schmidt from Schmidt Family Farm . Arnie and Patti are known for growing monster rhubarb, and they've challenged other farmers, gardeners and market customers to a "biggest rhubarb leaf" contest.
The whole market has joined in. This week vendors are offering rhubarb-based baked goods, crumbles, crisps, brats, dessert pizza, jams and jellies--including rhubarb jam, strawberry-rhubarb jam, cherry/rhubarb/jalapeno jelly and raspberry/rhubarb/jalapeno jelly. Jesse Davis, Program and Outreach Coordinator for the MN Farmers' Market Association, says that jellies, preserves and jams are often overlooked as glazes for pork roast, ham, "and any slow-cooked thing you're doing in the oven--turkey breast or roast chicken. These jellies, especially with a little kick from the jalapeno or horseradish, are really wonderful, and the glaze keeps all the moisture in."
Also on tap are rhubarb iced tea (also available as a concentrate), and a rhubarb-basil shrub. A shrub, Jesse explains, is a vinegar drink infused with fruit that is more often seen in "trendy" markets in the Twin Cities, Portland or DC. It's a healthy drink made with organic cider vinegar, but "you can also add soda water to it, fresh lemon, and gin."
Rhubarb is, of course, available fresh at the market; and it freezes well.
Jesse provided us with a brief history: Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family, indigenous to China where it was originally used as medicine. It made its way west through the Silk Road with appearances in the middle east and central Asia in rice pilaf, as sauce for kabobs, or with grilled lamb and goat. Maritime trade brought it to England. The advent of the sugar beet industry in Europe in the 1700s led to the more common uses of rhubarb in the kitchen that we know today, notably in Scandinavia.
The plant is a heavy feeder that needs full sun and a cool dormant period in the winter. It can be transplanted into rich soil in the spring or fall.
Rhubarb leaves have been known to be wearable and used in concrete castings. A leaf that expects to win in the Grand Rapids Farmers' Market contest should be at least 22 x 18", maybe more! Full interview with Jesse Davis, Maggie Montgomery, and Katie Carter is below.