In all honesty, I had never even seen a rhubarb plant before this year. Rhubarb was an abstract concept to me. An ingredient as mysterious as pixie dust that only appeared mentioned in some Beatrix Potter books (or was it The Wind in the Willows?).
I did remember rhubarb being mentioned in recipes where strawberries were also prominently featured. Pies and muffins both seemed to combine them often enough in what appeared to be quite a traditional tandem. In my head, tea and crumpets, cucumber sandwiches and rhubarb all seemed to mingle in the same storybook universe. I imagined rhubarb a dainty, cute and oh so very tasty…fruit? What part of rhubarb do you actually eat anyway?
In my ignorance (this was before internet and computers), I figured rhubarb couldn’t be so bad if it was worthy of complementing strawberries, of which I am an enthusiastic aficionado. In any case, (I was geographically challenged since this plant did not do well in the area where I grew up) rhubarb inevitably became no more than an odd footnote in my cooking. It was nowhere to be found at the store, so I routinely ignored it and substituted it with fruit whenever a recipe required it.
When I started gardening in Vermont this year, (hang on to your bridges because I just fast forwarded 30 years), I couldn’t help but noticing these massive plants growing in many of the vegetable patches. Rhubarb (in case you haven’t seen it either) is not a wallflower type of plant. It has no intention of blending in with the rest of the crops. Huge floppy leaves with a scratchy surface hide a scarlet stalk that is fibrous and initially uninviting. It’s an “in your face” kind of plant that grows a plucky center stalk, high and unapologetic, sometimes crowned by a cluster of funny looking flowers. Furthermore, the leaves are poisonous. Not very dainty and certainly not cute.
Soon I was encouraged by my fellow gardeners’ enthusiastic embrace of all things rhubarb, so I took three stalks home and tried to make something simple with them. The result was this small batch of sauce and I think it was as beautiful as it was delicious. What a wonderful and unanticipated surprise! I’m still not ready to swoon over it, and rhubarb will have to spend sometime in kitchen purgatory before I can accept it as an equal to other vegetables that grow in my garden, but we’ve officially met and it has made a good first impression on me.
If you have never tried rhubarb before, this easy recipe could be a perfect way to get introduced to this idiosyncratic vegetable.
Rhubarb & Berries Sauce
3 stalks of rhubarb
2 cups frozen mixed, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries
3 Tbsp raw honey (or a bit more if you want more sweetness)
1 star anise
2 cardamom pods
1 small cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp orange zest
½ cup orange juice
½ tsp aged balsamic vinegar (optional)
Slice the rhubarb in small pieces. Place it in a medium size pot with the berries, orange juice, orange zest, spices and balsamic vinegar. You don’t even need to defrost the berries. Keep the mix over low heat until it starts to boil. Reduce to a steady simmer and leave the sauce uncovered, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. Once it has acquired the consistency of marmalade, turn off the heat and add the honey to taste. Remove the spices before serving.