It seems odd to write about rhubarb as summer draws to a close.
Rhubarb is one of the first vegetables to be harvested in the spring.* It’s an herbaceous perennial that comes back to life from rhizomes every spring. The timing is perfect for it to be paired with another perennial favorite, strawberries! I can’t think of anything else that marks the start of summer like strawberry-rhubarb pie. Unfortunately, that time came and went quickly this year and I never made that pie. I ended up putting all of my effort into something less fleeting; jam. I made strawberry and strawberry-rhubarb jam.
*That’s right, it’s a vegetable! The courts were able to declare it a fruit back in the 1940’s because of its culinary association with cobblers and pies, but it was mainly done to help businesses who imported the stalks from having to pay taxes!
The jam was good to make but, I did miss getting to bake. Here’s a Gardenkeeping secret confession: I love to bake as much as I love to garden! The only problem with baking is that, if you’re not careful, everyone gets chunky around the middle. It’s definitely not a victimless pastime. So, please, please be careful if you find yourself alone in a kitchen with flour, sugar, butter…!
So, there I was, alone and in the kitchen.
A couple of weeks ago, my son, Brandon (who’s a baker) and his girlfriend, Heather (also a baker) were coming to town for a visit. I thought that this would be a good time to bake something sweet. Upon later reflection, I realized that this was an odd thing to do for people who bake every day. My mind must have been in a “mom” cloud. I was wondering what to make, something that would say, “You’re home” and “You’re family.” My eyes scanned the kitchen. Nothing came to mind. I looked out of the window to my vegetable garden. Something homegrown and homemade would be great, but what? I’ve already picked and eaten most of my blueberries, the apples are not ready yet and the strawberries are long gone. I think it must’ve been the strawberries that finally triggered my brain to remember the rhubarb.
Julia and the Shortbread
I, like so many people, loved Julia Child. I loved watching her shows and reading her books. She would say something to the effect that recipes weren’t very important once you had the basic ideas and technique. One of her books that I have was based on a show she did with guest bakers. They would come to Julia’s house and bake with her in her kitchen. Can you imagine that? The recipe I chose was one that I had made various times over the years called “Hungarian Shortbread”. It uses an unusual method of freezing the shortbread and then grating it into a pan where it gets layered with rhubarb jam. It had been a few years since I had made it, but I knew it would remind Brandon of home. It freezes well, too, so it can be enjoyed, bit by bit as the need arises!
OK, that was a lot of work. The process probably took twice as long with me stopping to clean my hands and take the pictures! I’m just glad that it turned out although about halfway through I panicked when I realized I was baking for bakers! Thankfully they liked it and even took some back to Bellingham to share with my other son, Jeremy. My mothering mission was complete!
Long Live Rhubarb!
Rhubarb starts early and keeps going strong all summer long. My rhubarb, despite years of being dug up and divided, is huge! It’s one of the few plants in my garden with a murky origin. There was one plant here when we moved in 23 years ago and it was already big and old. I can remember thinking that all houses had rhubarb tucked in somewhere, you just had to look to find it!. The house I had grown up in back in Spokane had a rhubarb plant too, so it just seemed natural to find one growing in the back when we moved in here. Here’s where it gets murky: I also kind of remember being given some that eventually formed a row in my garden. I can’t even remember who gave them to me. I think it was Sugi, who was an older Korean woman in the neighborhood. It’s weird that I can’t remember that detail. I eventually dug up and gave away all but one. Which one remains? I’d like to think it was the original one that came with my house but, I don’t know for sure. If it was from Sugi that would be nice too!
Wherever it came from, I’m glad to have one in my garden. Rhubarb is such a striking plant with its red stalks and giant green leaves. I’m sure I would want to grow it even if it wasn’t edible.
Maybe now is a good time to mention that the plant is poisonous.
Rhubarb leaves (and the stalks to a much lesser degree) contain oxalic acid. It can vary from plant to plant but, generally speaking, you would have to eat around nine pounds of the leaves to receive a lethal dose of its poisonous substances. I’m guessing a smaller amount would still be unpleasant and give you a very bad tummy ache. Just don’t do it.
It’s the oxalic acid that gives the rhubarb stalks their tartness. This is why it works so well in sweet treats. The acid balances out the sweetness and keeps it from being too cloying. I have no words to describe the actual flavor. I just know every time I have it I feel like I’m tasting something that people have always eaten. It tastes ancient and familiar; like I’m in a dream….
and speaking of dreams…
In England, they get an early start to the season by “forcing” rhubarb in dark heated sheds; even the harvesting is done by candlelight! There it can grow earlier, sweeter and, in the absence of light, the color of the stalks turn a bright pink!
Why Summer is Sweeter
As warm summer days give way to chilly September nights, the cold will signal the rhubarb to begin dying back. When this happens, the oxalic acid from the leaves will begin to move down into the stalks. They then become extremely sour and are dangerous to eat. We say “dying back” but, really the plant is going dormant. Its energy is being drawn back down into its rhizomes, where it can rest and and be safe until spring swings back around again next year.
Rhubarb is for the summertime. I hope everyone had a sweet one!
♥ This post is dedicated to Brandon and Heather. Congratulations on your engagement! May you bloom and grow together forever! ♥