Rhubarb is such a traditional fruit. Its history goes back over 2700 years to China where the roots were used as a medicinal. Westerners have cultivated rhubarb for culinary purposes since the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Only the fleshy stalks are edible; the leaves are toxic, proven by the late folks who boiled and ate them as a vegetable.
My memories of rhubarb go back to childhood. I remember stewed rhubarb with breakfast or mixed with mashed bananas and spooned over white cake for dessert. How I loved my Aunt Melie’s rhubarb pies. I have her recipes for a version with a lattice crust and another with a crumble topping. Either Melie or my mother also made another favorite springtime dessert, rhubarb crisp.
While I was studying to be a nurse at St Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, my roommate and I noticed a long, bounteous row of rhubarb in a garden behind Marian Hall, the student residence. The garden was tended by Franciscan Sisters who ran the hospital and the nursing school. Every convent and monastery I’ve ever visited has had a large rhubarb patch. Rhubarb must feed the soul. Kathy and I were sure the Sisters could spare some stalks so we gathered a bundle to make dessert in the dorm kitchen. Our impetus likely had more to do with recreating a sense of home–we both grew up with family rhubarb patches and kitchens ever warm with baking–as treating ourselves and our friends to a fruit dessert.
Actually rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is not a fruit but a perennial vegetable belonging to the buckwheat family and closely related to sorrel. It has been cultivated in Europe and North America for its fleshy stalks. The stalks are quite tart but very tasty when cooked with sugar and made into sweet treats like jam, sauce, pies and other desserts. I heard an older cook refer to rhubarb as “pie plant.” Rhubarb mixes well with other fruit and strawberry-rhubarb pie is a favorite of many people.
The first spring after Jay and I bought our first house, in Madison, South Dakota, we started a garden. If there wasn’t already rhubarb behind the garage, we transplanted roots from my family’s Iowa garden. My dad advised me to stop picking rhubarb on the 4th of July. After that the stalks can get woody in mid-summer heat. The plants also need time to store up energy so they will be vigorous the following year. Dad also taught me to feed the plants with composted manure. A farmer friend in South Dakota unloaded a pick-up truck bed of composted pig manure into our garden one spring. It didn’t take many rhubarb stalks the size of a man’s arm to make a pie that year. Those big stalks remained tender as they rapidly increased in size.
When we bought our northeastern Pennsylvania house twenty-one springs ago, we found spindly rhubarb growing in a shaded garden. Moving the roots into a new sunny garden didn’t help much so a work colleague gave me a root from his parents’ garden. Eventually that plant became three and we’ve given away roots to others. This rhubarb variety is more green than red so I’d like to add in a red-stalk plant.
Last year’s rhubarb crop was delayed by a cold spring (including mid-May snow) but July rains kept the stalks juicy, so we picked for a month longer than usual. A harsh winter killed one of our three plants and, perhaps coupled with the long 2013 harvest, this year’s crop was sparse. We got only only three or four pickings. That was not enough rhubarb to prepare it the variety of ways I do most years.
This year I stuck to our favorite recipe, a rhubarb shortcake recipe from my mother. The dessert recipe might have come from her Open Line Cookbook, produced by an Iowa radio show. Although the shortcake is my favorite rhubarb recipe, I don’t know that any of my siblings cherish it like I do. Maybe I picked up on this recipe because it is easy. Not long into my own marriage and housekeeping days I changed the recipe, making it my own by adding cinnamon and grated orange rind to the fruit.
Line the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan with 4-6 cups of cut rhubarb. Cover with 1 Cup sugar, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, and 3 tsp dried grated orange rind.
Combine the following ingredients:
4 eggs, separated
1 C sugar
1 C flour
Beat egg yolks until creamy. Add sugar a little at a time; beat until smooth. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add half the whites to the yolk mixture and beat until blended. Add flour, mixing thoroughly. Fold in remaining egg whites.
Pour batter over rhubarb. Bake at 350-375 degrees F for 30-35 minutes, until rhubarb is bubbly and batter is brown and springs back when tested with a finger. Serve warm or cool. To store, cover very loosely so the sponge cake stays slightly firm on top. Unless you eat it all up within a couple days, refrigerate the dessert.
We love rhubarb shortcake topped with vanilla ice cream. When there’s no vanilla in the freezer, butter pecan or cherry nut ice cream do very nicely.
One day in May while I was sowing seeds in our vegetable garden, a shout to Jay startled a fawn out of the adjacent rhubarb patch. It wasn’t the first time that we’d discovered a fawn hidden under the large leaves by its mother. While the doe goes off to browse for hours, the fawn usually stays put, sleeping or nervously eying any humans who take a peek. Recently we’ve been seeing twin fawns frolicking in the yard. The first time we caught sight of the pair, they were checking out the garden perimeter, sniffing onions and herbs and strolling through the rhubarb patch.
Rhubarb picking season should be over now, according to Dad, but I might pull a few more stalks. I need only a couple cups of cut rhubarb added to a bag already in the freezer to have enough for a winter shortcake. Or I could make rhubarb punch at Christmas by combining equal parts rhubarb juice and ginger ale or using the Old Farmer’s Almanac recipe. If there’s any rhubarb left in the freezer come February, we’ll sweeten our oatmeal with the fruit after cooking it with sugar in the microwave.
Jay and I handed on the family fondness for rhubarb to our own children. When Michael was a toddler he called it “boo-bar,” a name we still occasionally use for fun. We’re waiting to hear–and taste–what the next generation does with rhubarb.