AS FAR AS vegetables go, rhubarb is about as violent as it gets: It actually rockets out of the ground each spring. At first, there’s just a little red alien head peeking up from the soil. But when the time’s right, bright ruby stalks torpedo skyward, heralding our gardens’ rise from soggy slumber. Then there’s the poison thing—rhubarb’s elephant-ear-shaped leaves contain oxalic acid, which is lethal to humans. (It would take 10 pounds of leaves to kill an average adult, but better safe than sorry.)
Rhubarb rocks the tongue, too. Chew a chunk raw, and you’ll feel (and maybe love) the way its potent, tooth-curling tartness ricochets around your mouth. But the plant also has a peaceful side, as anyone who has savored a slice of rhubarb pie will attest. So those who can’t handle the rhizome au naturel can cook it up with just the right amount of sugar, allowing its flavor to mellow to a sweetness that’s more perky than puckery.
The perennial pops up in Seattle gardens in April, but many farmers, like Katsumi Taki of Mair Farm-Taki outside Yakima, prefer to wait until the stalks are bigger. When they harvest rhubarb, farmers cut off the leaves, and, says Taki, “if you cut too early, the plant loses its ability to funnel nutrients to the roots and keep growing bigger.” To get more bang for his ’barb, Taki usually takes a first crop in May, a second in July, and—in good years—a third in September. He recommends wrapping trimmed stalks in plastic before storing in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Look for rhubarb at Mair Farm-Taki’s stand at the University District farmers market.