Sour sign of spring

Sour sign of spring

Rhubarb comes to life

The first foods of spring are indeed the coming back to life from the dead. After months of frozen ground, ice, and snow, the earth thaws, and somewhere down there, life opens up and starts to grow again and, if we are lucky, April brings rhubarb.

Rhubarb is about the first serious edible a Vermont garden produces. It is one of the many rheum plants of the buckwheat family, and technically a vegetable, not a fruit. It is grown from an underground rhizome, like flowering iris, ginger, or asparagus. It is a perennial, and a single plant can live up to 20 years.

For centuries, rhubarb was cultivated for its medicinal properties and is still used widely in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhubarb comes out of the earth in a tight green-and-red fist that slowly unfurls like a ball of chrysanthemum tea into crinkled, triangular leaves with thick, edible stalks. It is high in nutrition, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, and low in carbohydrates and calories.

The leaves of a rhubarb plant cause serious gastrointestinal difficulties. Look for crisp and sturdy stalks, although if limp is all you can find, they can be refreshed by cutting an inch off the end and standing them in cool water for an hour or so.

When you are ready to use them, give them a good wash, then trim the ends again. If the rhubarb is really tough, remove just the very outside layer with a vegetable peeler, but usually this is not necessary.

Now, let's talk about what to do with that rhubarb. The classic is strawberry-rhubarb pie, but strawberries are definitely not in season in Vermont in April. It is a great combination, but perhaps overdone. You could just cut the rhubarb into slices, add some sugar and lemon, and stew it.

But there are lots more adventurous ways to get the benefits of rhubarb's botanical and culinary attributes. How about rhubarb syrup?

Rhubarb syrup

Add a few tablespoons of this rhubarb syrup to a glass of chilled white or sparkling wine, and you have the perfect spring aperitif for one of those warm spring afternoons on the deck.


¶4 cups chopped rhubarb

¶1 cup sugar

¶1 cup water

Bring to a boil and then simmer gently for about 20 minutes. By that time, the rhubarb should be soft and the liquid a bit thickened. Strain this mixture through a cheesecloth-lined colander and cool.

Add a few tablespoons to fizzy water with a squeeze of lemon or lime for a refreshing and healthy drink.

Rhubarb mojito

A divine rhubarb mojito can be made from this:

Put in an old-fashioned glass:

¶4 tablespoons rhubarb syrup

¶6 large fresh mint leaves

Muddle it around until the mint is mashed and mixed with the syrup.


¶1 ounce rum


¶juice squeezed from 1 slice lime

¶a splash of seltzer

Spring salad

A lovely spring salad can be made from rhubarb, roasted beets, fresh bitter greens, and goat cheese. Wrap in foil:

¶8 medium beets

Drizzle with a bit of:

¶olive oil


Roast them in a preheated 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for about an hour until they are tender.

Unwrap and cool them, then peel and cut each beet into 8 wedges.

Then combine:

¶1 pound sliced rhubarb

¶3 cups water

¶a pinch salt

¶{1/2} cup sugar

Bring to a slow boil and then simmer gently for just a few minutes, until the rhubarb is slightly tender but still holds its shape.

Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and cool.

Segment a few oranges into a bowl, grating and reserving the peel in another smaller bowl. Add to the bowl with the orange peel:

¶2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

¶1 tablespoon of lemon juice

¶juice from the orange segments

¶1 tablespoon mild honey

¶1 shallot, small, finely minced

Whisk and add:

¶salt and pepper to taste

To the bowl with the orange segments, add:

¶the beets

¶2 to 3 cups bitter greens like arugula or watercress

Add the rhubarb.

Stir gently and arrange on 6 plates. Crumble fresh goat cheese on top and a few tablespoons of dressing.

Rhubarb chutney

Rhubarb chutney is terrific with fish or meat and incredibly easy to make.

This recipe makes around 4 cups, which will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. This tart, sweet, and slightly spicy compote pairs perfectly with pork or chicken and is surprisingly delicious with a piece of salmon, braised red cabbage, and a cold garnish of yogurt or sour cream.

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine:

¶4 cups rhubarb, chopped

¶{1/2} cup brown sugar

¶{1/2} cup ginger root, fresh and finely minced

¶peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon, grated

¶{1/2} teaspoon ground cinnamon

¶{1/4} teaspoon ground cardamom

¶1 small red onion, finely diced

¶{1/2} cup golden raisins

¶{1/3} cup apple cider vinegar

Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until rhubarb is tender. Cool.

Rhubarb fool

There are countless dessert recipes for rhubarb: pies, cobblers, buckles, grunts, slumps, and fools. My favorite is the fool.

A fool, or foole, is an old English dessert that dates back to the 16th century. It is a simple and brilliant combination of puréed cooked fruit very gently folded into unsweetened whipped cream. The secret is to make sure the fruit is tart and cold, the cream local and rich, and the folding so minimal as to allow lovely alternating stripes of fruit and cream.

Springtime food should be uncomplicated and clear. It should celebrate the ingredient. It should celebrate the season.

A rhubarb fool epitomizes this for me. You take a spoonful and first taste the fatty and rich silken cream, then suddenly a taste of tart fresh rhubarb. It is truly delicious and very easy to make.

For eight modest servings, cut into {1/2}-inch pieces:

¶1 pound rhubarb

In a medium saucepan, combine rhubarb with:

¶2 tablespoons water

¶1 cup sugar

Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cook, uncovered, for about 8 minutes, until the rhubarb is completely soft. Let cool, transfer the mixture to a food processor, and purée until smooth. Refrigerate until cold.

Beat until soft peaks form:

¶3 cups heavy cream, finest quality

Gently and incompletely fold the rhubarb into the cream, allowing streaks of fruit to remain.

Transfer into tall glasses, and serve with a great, crisp, plain cookie.

Winter is hard in Vermont, and spring plays tricks. I hope it brings warmth and sun to all of us. I hope all my flower seeds come up. I hope love conquers all.

And I hope that in whatever way makes sense for you and your family, you are able to take the time to acknowledge through food this most satisfying and enigmatic season.

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