Rhubarb: It tastes like spring

 

One cup flour. Spring tulips splashed across yards as I morphed into an alley-cruising backyard spy, desperate to find a rhubarb patch. I'd all but given up when I spied a plot of the familiar elephant ear leaves.

Three-quarter cup uncooked oatmeal (not instant.) Ding-dong. A skinny boomer in shorts answered the door, as I explained and beseeched. May I please pick some rhubarb? He wasn't too sure, since his mother-in-law had mentioned a desire to come by and get some. I was in competitive territory. I quickly pointed out the huge pod that towered above the leaves: It was going to seed and must be picked! Sure, he smiled, there's more than enough.

One cup brown sugar. So it was I who pulled pink, tender stalks from the ground and carried them a few blocks down the streets of Mancos, a town in southern Colorado, as if they were gold. I cut off the cupped, creamy white bottoms, topped off the fanned leaves, and set to chopping.

One-half cup melted butter. Rhubarb is a spring ritual for this Iowa-grown girl. Called "pie plant" by country folk, it's the first fruit (though a vegetable) of the season, cousin to sorrel. I'd already made rhubarb-blueberry pie (with a large pinch of red chili powder) for Easter. The crisp rhubarb came from a grocery store, though. It's not the same unless I tug it from the ground.

One teaspoon cinnamon. Once I'd chopped four cups of rhubarb, I called my mother back in Iowa. She picked up. She always does, and she's almost 90 years old. I often wonder what it will be like after she and my father have vacated their earthly home -- when I can no longer dial the number that never fails to answer. I asked mom about freezing rhubarb. Yes, she assured, it freezes well. Did she ever make anything besides rhubarb sauce, pie or crisp? Aunt Clara used to make rhubarb jam, she reminded me. She put Jello-o in it.

One-quarter teaspoon salt. Mix the flour, oatmeal, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and salt together in a bowl until crumbly. Put half of the mixture into a 9 X 9 baking dish. Even it out so it's slightly flat but don't pack it down. Place 4 cups rhubarb, sliced half-inch thin, over the bottom crust.

One cup white sugar. Whatever you do with rhubarb, sugar will be a main ingredient. I can't believe I raided the rhubarb patch when I was a kid and ate a stalk or two. A great cleansing tonic, it's bitter and stringy when bitten fresh.

Two tablespoons cornstarch. A few weeks ago, an article on rhubarb appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Finally, my favorite, rosy-stalked dishes would get the coverage they deserved. Alas, the shiny pages were devoted to the likes of "black bass with silky rhubarb sauce" and "crisp rhubarb in a sweet broth" that included a cardamom pod, white wine and Earl Grey tea. I was a long way from the farm.

One cup cool water. Ingredients assembled but lacking brown sugar, I grabbed some change and took off on foot for the small grocery store on the opposite end of town. The drone of a mower and sweet lilacs on air joined me in my pilgrimage of spring, until, back in the kitchen, Rosalie Sorrel's voice filled the kitchen as I diced, mixed and poured.

One teaspoon each, vanilla and grated orange peel. Mix white sugar, cornstarch, water, vanilla and peel in a small saucepan and bring them to a boil, stirring constantly. When the sauce is thick, smooth and clear, right about the time it boils, remove from heat and pour it over the rhubarb. Sprinkle the rest of the crumbly mixture over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

Pieces of rhubarb were strewn across the floor, oatmeal flakes littered the top of the stove. I prepared the espresso pot so it would be ready to brew when the timer went off, when I would bend, potholder in hand, to the bubbling blend called Rhubarb Crisp.

It's an indisputable fact: Hot desserts are made to be shared. Once sampled and savored, I scooped up a bowl and headed to neighbor John's. I figured he could use a break after hours on his knees, grouting his new tile floor. He stood and took a warm bite. His bushy, gray eyebrows rose. "Wow," he said, "It tastes like spring."

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes from her motor home in Mancos, Colorado, and her latest book is called MotorHome Zen.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...