We’ve had two good days largely above freezing. The warm weather has made good progress toward melting the snow that covered our garden beds, even if it’s left our dirt driveway rather “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful” as I think e e cumings would say. I walked to lunch without zipping my coat let alone pulling on my gloves. But most importantly, the warmer weather has rekindled a hankering for rhubarb.
Rhubarb, that first robin of the garden
I get a certain lip-smacking hunger for that tart stalk around this time every year. It was the year’s first produce from my parent’s backyard garden, a garden that also had strawberries, an apple tree, a bush cherry, raspberry brambles and a plum tree… But where those other “pie ingredient makers” each required some fiddling and fussing, the rhubarb was a true perennial. It came back stronger every year with a more generous crop. Now, of course, fruit that purports to be “fresh” is shipped in year round but I still get an odd yearning for rhubarb, that first robin of the garden.
And the yearning, I admit, IS a bit odd. Rhubarb is weird: it’s so sour that even prodigious amounts of sugar only tone it down to “tart; it looks strange and it’s mushy texture when cooked is unlike anything else I can think of. My dear partner Jan has learned to love it but it’s a “love” that seems to require frequent re-commitment. What can you do with rhubarb? Though it’ll be weeks before we get any usable stalks from our garden, I also know that long before the harvest is over, my enthusiasm will have completely disappeared.
I am calling out for tested, known, possibly even beloved recipes for rhubarb. And to provide equal space to opposing views, also feel free to send in your rhubarb rants and diatribes. Here are a couple ideas that have occurred to me:
• Jan makes a FANTASTIC rhubarb pie, but to be honest, she makes the absolute best pies I have ever tasted. Though I am unlikely to change my mind on that matter, I would love to see other pie recipes. I know it’s common to mix rhubarb with strawberries, for instance. I’ll see if I can coax Jan into posting her recipe.
• My Grandmother always used to eat a small bowl of stewed rhubarb. I don’t remember her doing too much special other that pulling a couple tender stalks, cutting them into inch long sections right into a small saucepan, then simmering with sugar and I think a bit of water. Is it *really* that simple? And I suppose, is it worth making in the first place.
• The other night I read a dark fantasy story where a character was eating a rhubarb and liver pie. The idea entirely distracted me from the story. I tried to imagine those two flavors in the same dish. Maybe they would work together well. It’s certainly an audacious combination of two generally under-appreciated foods. Maybe all the rhubarb needs is an equally strong flavored companion. Bleu cheese, maybe?
• I’ve heard of rhubarb wine but I’m more intrigued by the idea of rhubarb mead. I believe the beverage I’m proposing would technically be a melomel (mead with fruit) or maybe it’s a metheglin (mead with spice) — what *is* rhubarb afterall? Traditional mead can be cloyingly sweet and a judicious use of another flavor can provide a nice balance. Right now, for instance, I’ve got a batch of mead with habanero peppers in it, and another batch with cayenne peppers (these are technically called capsicumels or pepper-meads.) If the sweet-hot combination works, then why not a sweet-sour one? I definitely plan to try a batch.
• I am intrigued by the idea of making some kind of rhubarb juice, along the lines of a spring tonic or a lemonade or perhaps a mix for pop or spirits. One worry I have is that fresh rhubarb contains oxalic acid. The leaves have it in toxic amounts. The acid is made less harmful, I gather, by cooking. Cooking would also soften those irritating fibers that might clog up a juicer. But would it need to be stewed? Could rhubarb be dry roasted just long enough to soften the stalk? Or perhaps steamed like asparagus?
It’ll be weeks until anything edible comes from our yard — and I realize it’s a matter of some controversy whether rhubarb is considered “edible” or not. I for one am ready.