The Chef grows dreamy and nostalgic when anyone mentions rhubarb. “Ohhhh, rhubarb,” he almost growls, his face softening into a smile. He grew up in a large home that everyone in the family refers to as Big Brown. (It’s painted blue now, but that hasn’t changed the name at all.) In the side yard of Big Brown grew a large patch of rhubarb gone wild, like a teenage boy in need of a haircut. No matter how much rhubarb his mom cut down, more grew in its place. She made rhubarb pies and crisps all summer, apparently, but still there was more for the taking. He tells me that one of his favorite ways was to eat rhubarb was sliced as though for pie, with sugar dusted on top, and mixed up to make a little syrup. He just sat at the table and ate it straight out of the bowl.
Perhaps I might have discovered the beauties of rhubarb before now if my backyard had grown the fruit like a weed. However, rhubarb didn’t sprout in the dirt of southern California. (Don’t feel sorry for me, though. We had an avocado tree and pomegranates too.) To me, rhubarb always sounded like a fussy grandmother’s food, the kind one hoards and uses in place of sweeter, more expensive fruits. My grandmother grew up in the Depression, and she made rhubarb pie, reportedly. I never did eat one. Grandma rarely cooked for us. I heard rhubarb and thought thrift, sourness, and not so good.
I’ve seen the light, lately. The Chef is making a strawberry-rhubarb tart for the restaurant, and I want a piece every day.
Rhubarb is tangy and kicky, like strawberry’s spunky cousin. Raw it has a crunch like celery. Ruby red on the outside like slippers, the inside slips into a more demure greenish white. But when you cook it down, in a sweet stew, the slices slide into softness, mushy enough for a baby without teeth.
This week, at the farmers’ market, piles of bright red slices enticed me to stop. I didn’t know what I would make with that rhubarb, but I had to have some. For days, they languished in the refrigerator, waiting to be touched. For a time, I dreamt of making pie for the Chef, with a lemon custard on the bottom, and rhubarb on top. Fatigue set in, and the pie didn’t happen.
On a lovely walk with Molly on Friday, we talked about food as we circled the lake. Of course. The two of us talk and buoy each other, illuminate our lives for each other, and laugh. Much of it has nothing to do with food. But sometimes, in glancing, we dance across an idea for food on the way to the next topic. This week, she mentioned rhubarb compote, and moved on. It stayed in my mind, though.
Today, when the rains threatened outside, and the Chef took a nap, Molly and I talked on the phone. Needing to go — we could always talk more — I stopped her. “Wait, how do you make that rhubarb compote?” She talked me through a recipe she had adapted from someone else, and then I went into the kitchen and made my own. A pound of sliced rhubarb, half a cup of sugar, generous pats of butter, the zest of a Meyer lemon (the last soft and squishy one of the season), and the juice too. The hard slices relented into the juicy syrup and became soft and liquidy. The smell of it woke up Little Bean, who started kicking.
When that compote cooled down, I spooned some into thick vanilla yogurt.
Oh rhubarb, you’re my new best friend.
And so, dear readers, what do you like to do with rhubarb?