Do you have a food you loathe? Until quite recently my reply would have included rhubarb. Sharp, stringy, nasty tasting stuff (or that’s what I used to think!)
When I was a kid my grandmother tried to trick me into eating it set in red jelly (Jello). I wasn’t fooled. Rhubarb stayed on my food-hate list for years and years. Then we bought our farm and inherited two magnificent rhubarb plants. For years visitors admired them; for years I replied, “I hate the stuff.” For years my husband said, “I like it.” But I still didn’t harvest it or cook with it. Poor husband! (Not that he isn’t a good cook himself, but only if he has a recipe to follow.)
Then a writer friend started to bring a rhubarb cake with her when she visited. It tasted so good! Maybe, just maybe I should try cooking my own rhubarb from my own rhubarb plants?
So I harvested—gingerly, as those big leaves are poisonous. And stewed some with sugar until it was way too mushy. Not just my husband, but also my daughter loved it. They pleaded for more. So I tried again. This time no water, just sugar and a piece of vanilla bean, and a not-so-long cooking time. Success!
It’s become the family’s second-favorite breakfast treat, served with yogurt. (The first favorite is the plums from our ancient tree, but they’re only around in January in the Down Under summer.) Rhubarb is a source of vitamins, anti-oxidants and dietary fibre so that’s all good.
One of these rhubarb plants flourishes all year round. The second one is gone at the first hint of frost, but emerges in spring as beautiful ruby-red sprouts pushing up from the ground and rapidly unfurling into the so-valued stalks and the huge leaves. The experts say not to let the white flowers bloom as they take nourishment away from the stalks, but sometimes I let them bloom, and it doesn’t seem to diminish the quality of the stalks.
And me? Did I fall in love with my rhubarb? Not really. I like it, but I don’t love it like my family does. How I enjoy it is in muffins where the slight tartness of the rhubarb puts a pleasing edge to the sweetness of the muffin. I make my favorite muffin recipe, put half the muffin mixture in the muffin tin hole, add a teaspoon of the rhubarb-stewed-with-vanilla, cover with the rest of the mixture and top with more rhubarb and a teaspoon of brown sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. The streusel topping becomes all crunchy and the caramelized fruit juice drips down into the muffin. Now that’s the way I love to eat rhubarb!
And my writer friend who brings me the marvelous rhubarb cakes? Two springs past, I dug up some of the new-growth rhizome to take home with her. She now also has a flourishing rhubarb plant—and when she brings me cake, it’s made with “my” rhubarb, transplanted and thriving in her garden.
Kandy Shepherd writes fun, feel-good fiction. Her books include The Castaway Bride, Something About Joe, Love is a Four-Legged Word and Home Is Where the Bark Is—and while food plays a part in her stories, so far rhubarb has not made an appearance!