By Ellen Kelly
I seldom disagree outright with the inimitable English-cookery writer Jane Grigson; I quite enjoy her acerbic wit and opinionated stance on pretty much everything. But we part ways when it comes to rhubarb. While she apparently suffered from British nursery pap and tasteless boarding school fare (imagine puddles of undercooked stringy rhubarb with globs of suspiciously yellow Bird’s custard), I happily grew up learning about the “pie plant” and all the wonderful treats one could produce from it. My grandmother was an exemplary prairie cook and thrifty to the bone. The prolific rhubarb plant, first up and free for the picking, was a boon. Additionally, my grandfather, a huge proponent of the plant, considered rhubarb a spring tonic which of course it is, being a natural diuretic. Rhubarb means spring to me as no other fruit or vegetable can. It marks that first shift from last year’s wrinkly apples, frozen peas and jarred peaches (not that I’m ungrateful) to something homegrown and costing only the effort it takes to pick it.
Technically rhubarb is a vegetable, but it most often appears in pies, crisps, crumbles, muffins, cakes, and squares, not to mention its unrivaled contribution to jam and chutney making. A jam recipe I make every year came to me from a dear friend, Alice Schuld, and is one I rarely gift as I can never seem to make enough to spare.
She called it apri-barb jam, as I still do, and it came to me thus: 750 ml (3 cups) apricots, 250 ml (1 cup) rhubarb, 60 ml (¼ cup) lemon juice, 50 ml (¼ cup) orange zest, 625 ml (2½ cups) sugar. I will fill in a few blanks by adding the following; stone and chop apricots, chop rhubarb, use fresh lemon juice. Proceed as you would with any jam, adding the sugar once the fruit is slightly cooked. Because I make jam by weight, I usually start with 900 g (2 lbs) of apricots, 450 g (1 lb) of rhubarb and about 1 kg (2½ lbs) sugar, increasing the lemon juice and orange zest by half. This should give you 7 or 8 – 250 ml (1 cup) jars. If you tire of having it on toast, it makes a wonderful glaze for ham or pretty much anything else pork-related in need of embellishment.
Simpler still, an orange and rhubarb compote, more commonly served as dessert fare with a dollop of cream, can be presented alongside a pork roast or chops. The acidic counterpoint of the tart rhubarb to the sweet fatty pork easily puts applesauce to shame. Or serve it with slices of foie gras and brioche toast points for the same contrast, but with bells on. Baking rhubarb instead of cooking it on the stove top keeps the fruit somewhat intact and helps to avoid overcooking.
Take about 1 ½ litres (6 cups) of clean, trimmed rhubarb, cut into 2 cm (¾ inch) pieces, and toss with the juice and zest of 1 large orange and 120 ml (½ cup) sugar in a nonreactive baking dish. Cover with foil and bake at 175°C (350°F) for about 25 minutes, then, uncover and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender. The addition of a little mint sauce or jelly to the rhubarb before baking creates a sauce for lamb as well.
In the dessert column, a perennial favourite is lunar rhubarb cake, a classic Canadian recipe revived by cookbook author and food editor Elizabeth Baird. I found it in a cookbook of hers years ago. I’ve made it with frozen rhubarb as often as fresh; it’s a great way to clear out the cache of last year’s frozen rhubarb before making room for the new. When I want cake, this is invariably what I want. The topping creates candied craters while it bakes, hence the “lunar” designation.
Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F.) Butter and flour a 23 x 33 cm (9 x 13 inch) baking pan. Make the streusel topping by mixing 250 ml (1 cup) packed brown sugar, 10 ml (2 tsp) cinnamon and 60 ml (¼ cup) soft butter with a fork or your fingers; set this aside. In a large bowl, cream together 120 ml (½ cup) room temperature butter with 325 ml (1 ½ cups) sugar and 5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla. Add a large egg and mix well. Sift 5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda and 2½ ml (¼ tsp) salt into 500 ml (2 cups) flour. Add dry ingredients alternately with 250 ml (1 cup) buttermilk to the butter mixture. Toss 500 ml (2 cups) chopped rhubarb with about 15 ml (1 Tbsp) flour and stir into the batter. Spread the batter in the baking pan and crumble the streusel over the top. Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden and cake bounces back when pressed. Serve warm or cold, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
While always a treasure to savvy country folk, rhubarb saw its heyday in the late 18th century in Yorkshire, grown as a valuable forced crop and shipped far and wide. It fell out of fashion when sugar was scarce after the second world war and more exotic fruits and vegetables became available. Today, with the blossoming of a renaissance in homegrown, seasonal and healthy foods, rhubarb’s star has begun to rise again.
Rhubarb does not care for heat and does its best in cool climes with cold winters. This makes it truly a blessing for those of us who wait well into late spring and summer for local produce of any kind.
Caution: Use only the stalks. As tempting as the large meaty leaves are, rhubarb leaves and roots contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid. If you have exhausted your patch (and your neighbours’) and can’t bring yourself to skulk down alleys at night (GoPro and balaclava, optional), you can find rhubarb for sale in more and more places. Look for firm, slender stalks with clean cut ends and without any blemishes. Rhubarb freezes well; chop, freeze on a tray and bag the pieces for future pies and such. The red variety is often considered superior, but I take what I can find, or am offered, and am happy with it all.