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.
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