Canadiana, Part III: Rhubarb, a Spring Tonic

Grainews

June 2022.

Few ingredients say “Canada” – or spring – as insistently as rhubarb. Rhubarb thrives in cool climates and is among the first plants to emerge in spring. My Mom has a rhubarb patch, like most prairie gardeners. She can’t keep up with it once it hits its stride, so I am the lucky beneficiary. The broad but inedible leaves are big enough to shelter entire families of runaway bunnies gone bamboo, and its pink stalks gleam like love grown wild. Astringent and biting, rhubarb is the ultimate spring tonic, arriving just as we tire of roots and long for shoots.

Technically a vegetable, rhubarb forms a virtual bridge from winter to spring, and thence into early summer. But think of it as a bridge between sweet and savoury too: simmered rhubarb makes good chutney, flavoured with ginger, dried fruit, apple or pear, citrus and onion, a bit of hot chili. This makes it a hot date for curries, spring rolls, or meats such as pork, beef, duck and salmon. Alternatively, use simmered rhubarb as a starting point for a lime-and-ginger-enhanced vinaigrette.

In the sweet kitchen, many cooks find rhubarb’s tart nature easier to bear in the company of less demanding fruits. Try mixing cooked rhubarb with raw strawberries, or with apples or pears, or apricots and peaches later in the season. But in spite of its acid bite, the taste of rhubarb is surprisingly mild, so don’t overwhelm it. Spearmint and lemon thyme are good herbal accents, if sparingly used.

When facing a particularly prolific rhubarb plant, make buckwheat crepes, galettes, chutney, tarts and jams, crisps and cobblers, buckles, muffins and sweet loaves. And pie. Rhubarb was known for generations as “pie plant”, and makes stellar pie, especially when paired with strawberries and/or apples and cranberries. Stewed with sugar and perhaps another fruit, served with heavy cream, it’s called a fool. Try rhubarb slushies, made with stewed and frozen rhubarb mushed up in ginger ale. Add ice cream for a refreshing float. Or simmer and strain sweetened rhubarb seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, peppercorns, and ginger. Give the syrup to your favourite bartender, or use the resulting syrup to make an old-style non-alcoholic shrub, a surpassingly springlike refreshment.

Regardless of what you plan, choose firm ruby stalks for the best colour. The colour will fade during cooking, but returns if you partially simmer the stalks, whole or sliced, and leave the rhubarb to finish softening in its own liquid. Peeling or not peeling depends on the thickness and fibre of the stalks. Adding the minimum of honey, maple syrup or sugar to tame its astringency helps rhubarb keep its shape, as does cutting it into longer lengths or leaving it whole during cooking, without stirring.

Whatever direction you go with this prairie favourite, remember there’s no place like home. Rhubarb holds pride of place in Prairie kitchens. So first we eat, then keep that fork. There’s pie. Or cobbler. Or crisp. Or buckle.

      Rhubarb Berry Buckle

      Nothing says SPRING! as loudly as rhubarb. This spectacular stresuel-topped coffee cake

      does indeed buckle a bit after baking. Garnish each serving with optional simmered fruit

      compote and whipped cream. Serves 12

      streusel topping:

¼ cup softened butter

¼ cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

½  tsp. ground cinnamon

3/8 cup flour

½ cup rolled oats

batter:

1 cup flour

1 tsp. baking soda

¼  tsp. salt

½ cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 lemon, zest only

1 ½ cups yoghurt or sour cream

1 cup berries

1 cup chopped rhubarb

¼ cup minced crystallized ginger

fruit compote and whipped cream for garnish

To make topping: Combine ingredients and mix together by hand. Set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 9” springform pan or 2 loaf pans.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Use a countertop mixer to cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, vanilla, and zest. Mix until combined. Add half the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Add half the yoghurt or sour cream and mix until combined. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients and yoghurt/sour cream, finishing with a bit of flour.

Stir half of the berries and rhubarb and all of the ginger into the batter. Spread batter into pan(s). Top with remaining berries and rhubarb. Crumble streusel on top. Bake for 60 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center. Slice and serve warm with whipped cream and compote.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary, Uncategorized

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