By Marcia Pilgeram
Once spring had finally sprung, I walked around the yard to see how my perennials fared through the crazy winter (and aborted attempts at spring). I belong to a North Idaho gardens Facebook group (why I don’t know — the only bit of green thumb I possess is when some residual avocado is caught under my nail).
Sadly, the young clematis I bought to replace the more than 20-year-old one that passed a couple years ago did not make it. And oddly, my years-old, hardy parsley does not appear to have survived winter either. The pride of my yard, a pair of giant rhododendrons offering gorgeous hot pink flowers on either side of my front porch, is also nothing to brag about this season.
However, I took much comfort when I rounded the corner to the shady side of my yard, and there — as always — my mother’s rhubarb plant was thriving. I look forward to spotting those tiny bright buds bursting through the earth every year. Little brings me greater joy than this connection to memories of my long-passed mother, Fern.
I’ve dug it up and hauled it westward more than once, replanting it throughout the many seasons of my life. Over the years, I’ve also dug up young buds to ship to family and friends, and Fern’s mother plant seems to thrive wherever it resides. I have a couple other rhubarb plants that I purchased, but they must not feel the same connection to me, producing more leaves than stalks, and they pale compared to the vibrant pink stalks of Mom’s plant.
Whenever I pull a young stalk to eat, I immediately recall being a kid at my grandmother’s house. Even now, a tender stem causes me to pucker up in anticipation of that first sour bite. And I can recall, too, my grandmother’s constant reminder not to feed the poisonous leaves to the horses (it’s also not wise to eat stalks that have frozen before being harvested, as the oxalic acid in the leaves seeps down and can impart poisonous properties to the stalks).
For sure, this sturdy sour-and-tart perennial is my favorite pie fruit of summer (in the U.S., rhubarb was initially classified as a vegetable for taxation purposes, but was reclassified as fruit in 1947)
I loved rhubarb even when it wasn’t cool to do so, but now, I feel like it’s the new Brussels sprout — once shunned but suddenly beloved by all. It’s no longer just for jams, pies and cobblers. Cocktails with rhubarb syrup abound, served on the rocks or blended to frothy perfection, even garnished with thin little stalks that pull double duty as swizzle sticks.
Rhubarb chutneys and compotes are the perfect accompaniment to just about anything. Chutney is ideal with cheese boards and charcuterie, while the sweeter compote can be served over ice cream, yogurt or crisp meringues for a perfect spring Pavlova.
I cringe when I come across overgrown and untended patches that have gone to seed, thinking of all the possibilities that will not come to fruition. It wasn’t that long ago that I used to knock on doors, inquiring about the possibility of bartering a cobbler in exchange for access to an untended patch. More often than not, I left with arms full of large stalks that I’d stem, steam and filter into syrup for margaritas, flavored vodka and Italian sodas.
Occasionally, when I used to travel to cook for clients in gated communities (and couldn’t find a patch to poach), I had to resort to purchasing rhubarb. Unfortunately, it was often dry and limp and always expensive. So I’d take it back to the kitchen, cut off both ends, soak the stalks in warm water, then shock them with an icy water plunge (which usually restored the crispness and moisture level).
Wimpy rhubarb is also tough to cut, and it’s best to cut it as soon as it’s picked. As soon as it’s rinsed, I cut mine into one-inch pieces, lay it on a parchment paper-covered sheet pan and freeze. Once frozen, I fill gallon-sized freezer bags with the fruit for future use. I love coming up with new recipes, and once added some of the frozen cubes to a smoothie. Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you it was a terrible idea.
As I continue with my rhubarb recipe quest, I have come up with a delicious (and now favorite) way to prepare it: roasted with red onions and sweet vegetables, like yams or beets, that complement the tart rhubarb. Ginger is also an excellent addition. I’ve learned the rhubarb cooks (or it’s mush) in less than half the time of the other ingredients, so I add it toward the end. Lucky for those who don’t have a patch, you can head to our Farmers’ Market to find some bright, crispy, tart stalks. Stock up and start cooking.
This dish is a wonderful balance between sweet and tart caramelized vegetables. It’s a delicious accompaniment to grilled meats or perfect piled on a bed of arugula. You can substitute golden beets for the yams. Serves 4.
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 large red onion, cut into ½-inch wedges
• 1 large yam (about ¾ pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
• 3 tbs olive oil
• 2 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
• 8-10 young rhubarb stalks, rinsed and cut into ½-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
• ⅓ cup of brown sugar
Heat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line sheet pan with parchment paper.
Place prepared onions and sweet potatoes in large bowl. Add olive oil and toss vegetables to coat.
Reserve bowl and remainder of oil.
Place vegetables on the prepared sheet pan, in a single layer, and lightly season with salt and pepper, Roast for 15 minutes.
While the onions and yam are in the oven, place rhubarb and ginger in the bowl and toss until rhubarb and ginger are coated with residual oil. Add the ⅓ cup of brown sugar, and toss to coat rhubarb.
Remove pan from oven, turn heat down to 375 F, and carefully spoon rhubarb onto the hot pan around the onions and yam. Continue roasting until tender and caramelized, about 10-15 minutes longer. Watch carefully so sugar does not burn. Remove pan from oven and let sit about 10 minutes. The liquids from rhubarb will thicken.
Serve hot over grilled meats, or chill and serve over a bed of greens. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for 3-4 days.
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