Rhubarb: it’s not just for granny’s cobbler anymore

By Marcia Pilgeram

Reader Food Columnist

Rhubarb’s not just for granny’s cobbler anymore. The past couple of years, this short-seasoned garden staple has been making the big city scene, featured on menus as the buzz ingredient for cocktails, piquant sauces and spicy chutney. Fresh from the perennial patch, it has an unmatched, distinctly tart taste that causes one to pucker up in anticipation of the first bite.

It’s a proverbial resident in many summer gardens, and I eagerly wait for those first little buds to shoot up into crisp, brightly-hued red and purple stalks. In the U.S., rhubarb was originally classified as a vegetable for taxation purposes but was reclassified as fruit in 1947. Anyone who was raised around livestock (or spent the summer with their country cousins) has heard the warning, “Don’t let the horses eat the leaves, they’re poisonous.” And that’s no wives’ tale. It’s also not a good idea to eat stalks which have frozen before being harvested as the Oxalic acid in the leaves seeps down and can impart poisonous properties into the stalks.

I come from a long line of rhubarb lovers and draw much comfort knowing my mother’s original stock grows strong in my garden. I’ve dug it up, hauled it west and replanted it through many seasons of my life. When Ryanne (my oldest) settled into her new home, I dug some up for her garden and now it thrives too, in Moscow.

Three years ago when Casey (my youngest) became engaged, I learned there was to be no Sandpoint nuptial. Instead she wished for a wedding in her beloved, adopted city of Chicago. We were fortunate: though the reception venue was smack in the middle of the big city, they were understanding of Casey’s desire to bring “a little bit of Sandpoint” to Chicago and allowed me to bring a few homegrown specialties, including signature drinks. The first that came to mind was rhubarb-infused vodka.

Calculating that I’d need about 40 pounds of rhubarb for my ambitious endeavor (more than my darling mother’s plant could deliver), I queried the community groups on Facebook. And true to the spirit of Sandpoint, a generous soul up Pack River was more than willing to share his abundant crop. Armed with his address, a friend with a GPS and rhubarb whacking implements, we headed up Pack River and easily found the spot, a beautiful little hide-away, overgrown and well off the grid. What we couldn’t find was the rhubarb. Time and again we circled the boundaries, searching close by the river, near sheds and other obscure areas until we gave up and headed home, disappointed and empty handed. As it turned out, the GPS sent us to an erroneous location, and I am forever grateful we didn’t find rhubarb that day. Can you imagine any explanation to the irate landowner who’d have caught us, arms filled with contraband rhubarb? A second, more fruitful (no pun intended) trip to the correct property yielded the goods.

As Casey’s wedding drew near, I shipped a case each of rhubarb, huckleberry and raspberry infused vodka to Chicago (disguised with the label, “Contents: Artisanal Vinegar”) holding my guilty breath until they arrived safely below the radar of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (did you know the ATF frowns on the shipment of homemade hooch?).

Sandpoint seems synonymous with huckleberries, so I was surprised to see the wedding guests’ vodka of choice was the rhubarb (no doubt that my dear departed mother was delighted). Possibly they were drawn to the pretty color, a pale pink-tinged hue or maybe it was the refreshing and natural tartness that brought them coming back for more. We raised many a glass of our signature cocktail, “Summer in Sandpoint.”

Before this summer (and my rhubarb supply) ends, I will have whipped up all the family favorites which includes many pie variations. Rhubarb is so synonymous with pies that sometimes it’s still referred to as “pie plant.” As a youngster, my son Zane coined his favorite pie, “Blubarb.” These days I mostly replace the blueberries with hand-picked huckleberries, but thirty years later all combination of rhubarb and berry are referred to as Blubarb to my gang of pie fans.

Soon I’ll begin with the baking, but first, this hot weather calls for a cool drink so I’m going to whip up a batch of refreshing and tart syrup for my Killer Rhubarb Cocktails. Why not whip up your own batch in time for the warm week-end? The variations are endless—I’ll help you get started.

Killer Rhubarb Cocktails

The syrup base is delicious and easy to make—it takes no time at all to whip up a batch. You can mix and match your own flavor preferences.

I use equal parts alcohol and syrup (about 2 oz each) and a dash of additional juice or soda.

Shake in cocktail shaker and pour into rocks glass, or strain into martini-style glass and garnish, per recommendations below, or create your own from-the-garden garnish (like a thin rhubarb stalk or a snap pea vine).

Here are some of my favorite cocktails:

•Tequila, rhubarb syrup, fresh lime juice, garnish with salted rim and lime wedge

•Vodka, rhubarb syrup, garnish with lemon twist

•White wine, rhubarb syrup, splash of soda, garnish with fresh mint

•Gin, rhubarb syrup, Rose’s Lime juice, garnish with lime twist

•Rum, rhubarb syrup, garnish with sugared rim and pickled or candied ginger

*Non alcoholic:

•Orange juice and rhubarb syrup, garnish with orange twist

•Iced tea and rhubarb syrup, garnish with mint

•Club soda and rhubarb syrup, (for Italian soda, add cream), garnish with strawberry.


•4 cups water

•2 cups sugar

•4 cups chopped rhubarb stalks

•2 tbs fresh lemon juice


Combine all ingredients in saucepan, bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Cook for five minutes.

*Strain through cheese cloth or jelly bag. Pour syrup into glass jar and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Infuse the syrup with a good amount of lemon or lime peel, lavender, mint or ginger before refrigerating, Chill overnight.

*Reserve the pulp and serve it warm or cold over ice cream, pound cake, waffles or scones.


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