It’s on the verge of toppling over to summer on the prairie and as I watch all things grow and reach to the sky, blossom and sprout and green up, I talk about it with neighbors and friends. We talk about lawn mowing and how saturated the ground is. We talk about lilacs and what we’re planting this year. We talk about tulips and getting the outdoor flowers in pots.
We talk about weeds and weather and the short growing season.
And we talk about rhubarb.
Because it’s a universal language around here. If you’re from the prairie you have undoubtedly tasted rhubarb in many forms, in jellies, jams, syrups, pies, cakes, cookies, puddings, salads and breads. You have probably had it pickled, cooked, souped, dried and made into wine.
Hell, if you’re really thrifty you’ve probably made boats or clothing or shelter out of it. It’s so abundant around here husband’s working on a way to burn it for an alternative, renewable and cheap fuel source.
It’s so common and hearty that I had a patch of it growing on our land and didn’t even know it–until pops came over with his shovel looking to add a another plant to his garden.
“More rhubarb!? Wait. I have rhubarb?” I said as he marched behind the house and over to the area where my grandmother (his mother) once kept her garden. And sure enough, there on the end of the spindly plum trees and looking dangerously similar to my enemy, burdock, sat a two big, leafy rhubarb plants.
As pops dug his shovel around the perimeter of the smaller plant and placed it in the back of his pickup for transplanting, it occurred to me that these plants have likely been growing here my entire life. And that rhubarb jam and syrup and crisp I remember from my childhood more than likely came from them.
Now that’s what you call an heirloom vegetable.
Anyway, suddenly I had a craving for all things rhubarb. Suddenly I was working hard to channel Betty Crocker with all of these ideas and confidence for creating something delicious with the only edible thing (besides dandelions) growing in my yard this spring.
I called husband to come and help me collect some of the stalks while informing him quite assuredly that I was going to make something delicious out of this.
“It’s easy,” I said to him as he pulled the stocks from the ground. “It’s easy I’m sure because everyone’s doing it. There’s rhubarb something-or-other every where I turn. How hard can it be>”
So off he went to break the inedible (and I heard from the ladies at the museum yesterday, poisonous..eek!) leaves off of the top of the plants and off I went to google the shit out of “Rhubarb recipes.”
Yes. I Googled it.
Just like I Googled jelly making.
My human resources are limited on this subject and by 9:30 pm, I am sure all two of them were wrapping up their own rhubarb projects and getting ready for bed like normal, hardworking women with a head on their shoulders.
My head? Well, it was quickly spinning because as soon as I plugged “Rhubarb Recipes” into the search engine the first thing that came up was an entire website dedicated to the plant.
I am not kidding.
Here it is.
But you probably all know about it anyway because you probably contribute and wear that rhubarb t-shirt they’re selling around as you work in your gardens and make exquisite rhubarb pies in your kitchens.
Damn you and all your homemaking capabilities!
Sorry. I had to get it out because at 9:45 pm on a Tuesday night I dove into that rhubarb website and didn’t come out on the other end until well past midnight.
It was a harsh lesson in the dangers of being a rookie homemaker with full internet access and all human life-lines tucked tight in bed.
Anyway after purchasing my very own “Got Rhubarb?” t-shirt from the site (because I believe there’s nothing like a t-shirt to commemorate brave events like this) and browsing through countless muffin, sauce, pie and bar recipes, I chose the following after having a recent delicious encounter with a strawberry-rhubarb jam made from a professional.
2 pounds strawberries (4 cups, mashed)
2 pounds rhubarb (8 cups, 1/2 inch pieces)
6 cups sugar
Wash fruit. Cut rhubarb into 1/2 inch pieces. Cover rhubarb with half of the sugar and let stand 1 to 2 hours. Crush berries and mix with remaining sugar and combine with rhubarb. Place mixture over low heat until sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Cook until thick. Pour into sterilized Kerr jars to within 1/4 inch of top. Put on cap, screw band firmly tight. Process in boiling water bath 10 minutes. Yield: 10 eight oz. jar
I am not a professional. Did I mention this? But the presence of only three ingredients enticed me.
I had strawberries.
I had sugar. I definitely had rhubarb. I had (too much) confidence and I thought I had a stove around here somewhere… I was certain I was on my way to the Homemaker Hall of Fame…
Until I realized I didn’t actually have jars.
So I jumped in the pickup and made a trip to my mommas to collect the jars that once contained delicious Christmas preserves and tomato soups and homemade pickles and jelly from my aunt and neighbors.
Fifteen minutes later it was 10:00 pm and I was back in the kitchen realizing that not having canning supplies in the house wasn’t going to be my first and only rookie move. Turns out starting this project past 9:00 in the evening after skimming the recipe and skipping over the part where the rhubarb needs to stand in sugar for 1 to 2 hours was my second mistake.
Oh well, I just finished mowing the lawn, fed the calf and took that long anticipated shower while I waited.
And by then I was ready to realize my third rookie mistake: getting a vague recipe off of the internet without even watching a damn YouTube video on the topic.
What do you mean by “cook until thick?” What’s thick? How thick? How long? What am I doing? Where am I and what did you do with Martha Stewart’s voice that’s supposed to be running through my head right now?
Which brings me to rookie move number four: over confidence. Over confidence in a usually under-confident kitchen rat. That and allowing husband to fall asleep while I attempted to pour what I decided was thick-enough, boiling-hot jam into the boiling-hot jars.
“Are you sleeping! HEY! ARE YOU SSSLLLLEEEEPPIIINGGGG???” HHHHEEEEYYYYAAAA!! I NNNNEEEDD YOUUURR HHELPPA HHEREEE!”
I think the snoring coming from our bedroom three steps away was a little exaggerated and a lot fake.
I was on my own. On my own with a sticky mess,
six jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam
and a kitchen that looked like this.
And then, at 12:30 am realized my fifth and final mistake:
Not. Making. Wine.
Oh well, I wiped the jars, and plopped down next to husband and poked him.
Still, er, sleeping.
And then I asked: “What’s another name for rhubarb?”
“Celery with a sunburn…bwhwahahahhah!”
I guess he really was sleeping ’cause I know he would have laughed at that one.
Anyway, turns out the jam was rookie-proof and my family has been enjoying it on toast, ice-cream and pancakes. I haven’t dared open my own jar yet, knowing that my family can be overly kind and encouraging, especially when it comes to someone in the family attempting anything domestic.
They always give an A for effort.
Anyone have any rookie-proof rhubarb recipes? I heard that rhubarb grows back….
Oh, and since you learned what not to do here, check out this site for a glimpse into the kitchen of a professional rhubarb connoisseur to learn how to do it right: Rhubarb and Venison