Rhubarb doesn't do well in L.A. gardens. The sleeping rhizomes that sit dormant underground in winter need many chilly days and nights in order to even think about poking above ground in spring. Freezing, chilly weather doesn't help either, as they are barely frost-tolerant. Their ideal situation is close to the human one — mid-70s during the day and 50ish at night through spring and summer. Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have that locked down, so we can happily tart it up this spring with some classic strawberry-rhubarb pie.
There are several varieties of rhubarb at the markets. Commercially and aesthetically favored deep red rhubarb varieties are a little hard to come by in California, but the one you will find most in local markets, Cherry Red, is a gorgeous crimson color from skin through stalk. It's excellent for canning and preserving — it holds up very well through the jamming and water-bath process — but a bit on the tough side for pies. Unless you make some canned pie filling for a little off-season flavor at the end of summer. The color is intense, but other less vivid varieties are tender and tart and cook down quickly for luxurious compotes, pies and terrines.
Margo McCrary of McCrary's Birds of Paradise in Ventura has a pretty consistent crop of a rose to light green variety of rhubarb piled high on her table this time of year. We're not sure of the variety — its heavy juicyness puts it in the Strawberry and German Wine categories, both of which are highly flavorful and great for pie. That juice is packed with malic acid, which gives the stalks their trademark sourness. You won't see leaves on market rhubarb because they're toxic, thanks to a killer level of oxalic acid, which is barely present in the edible parts. Some farmers will leave a little leaf webbing at the top to show how fresh a stalk is, but we recommend cutting it off before use.
You also can find various rhubarb varieties at Jimenez Farms (Santa Barbara, Solvang, Santa Monica, Ojai, Hollywood and Atwater Village farmers markets) and T&D Farms (Hollywood, Palm Springs, Beverly Hills, Joshua Tree and Riverside farmers markets). We'll see less and less of it as the weather heats up, though McCrary sometimes has a secondary crop at the end of summer. You can find her every Sunday at the Hollywood market.
Felicia Friesema is a Master Food Preserver with the UC Cooperative Extension and Co-Leader of Slow Food USA's Los Angeles chapter. You can follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaFriesema.