The joys of rhubarb

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in our garden. As usual, I have managed to avoid any work other than coming outside to admire the efforts of my partner and his son, who have been hard at it for several days.

Our ageing bodies aren’t as keen as they once were to bend over, kneel, hoe, weed and the like, so this spring, once we decided we weren’t ready to move, we set out to reconfigure our outdoor space. We wanted it to continue to soothe our souls, please our eyes and give us a relaxing space for hanging out with a book or friends, while minimizing the amount of physical labour required to keep it up.

There were some differences of opinion along the way — my partner believes there cannot be a garden without tomatoes in it, whereas I think it’s pretty easy to pick up tasty local tomatoes at any of our farmers’  markets; I love the sight of straight rows of beets almost as much as I like eating them and he’d be happy never to see or eat one again – but we sorted them out without too much difficulty.

We’ve greatly reduced the amount of space dedicated to vegetables, while keeping what matters most to us:  peas, salad greens, tomatoes (!), herbs, asparagus. We’re planting more flowers than ever with lots of them going into pots, so there will be less weeding. We’re adding more perennials: lupins, which we planted from seeds given to us by friends in Quebec who are surrounded by an abundance of them; lilac bushes; bittersweet.

We’re expanding the water feature my step-son built last year, and newly built little paths wind their way through the garden so we don’t have to worry about stepping on something we shouldn’t as we walk around.

A fool for rhubarb

I haven’t mentioned the rhubarb, which I just learned is classified as a vegetable belonging to the sorrel family. My partner and I may have disagreed about whether or not to plant tomatoes and beets, but there was no discussion about our three rhubarb plants. We both love this fruity vegetable, whether cooked into lemonade or any of a wide variety of desserts.

It’s quick and easy to freeze for winter pie or crisp making, if there is ever too much to use fresh; not that that has ever been an issue in our house. In fact, I keep a close eye on rhubarb patches in our neighbourhood, plotting how I might be able to launch a sneak nighttime harvest to replenish my supply.

We have two different kinds of rhubarb in our garden, one of which is a much brighter and deeper pink than the other. While some varieties of rhubarb are sweeter than others, this is not determined by the colour of the stalks, so I use them interchangeably.

A crisp by any other name

Rhubarb, like many other fruits, can be made into all manner of baked desserts: buckles, cobblers, crisps and crumbles. While similar, each has its own features. A buckle is a dish in which the fruit and cake are mixed together, with a streusel topping. In cobblers, crisps and crumbles, the fruit is mixed with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and/or cardamom, perhaps some candied ginger and grated citrus rind, but the toppings are different. A biscuit-style topping is spooned over the fruit in a cobbler. The topping for a crisp is made from oats, flour, butter, sugar and often nuts. A crumble has a similar topping to a crisp, but minus the oats. All are delicious made with rhubarb.

Last weekend, I made my first rhubarb pie of the season. I don’t go for any of that strawberry rhubarb nonsense; it’s just straight up rhubarb. I started with Martha Stewart’s Rhubarb Custard Pie recipe with the addition of 1 tsp. grated orange peel, 2 tsp. orange juice and 1 Tbsp. finely chopped candied ginger and a crumb topping (this recipe makes enough to top a few pies, so you can keep it in the freezer to use as needed).

Last year, I added a rhubarb upside down cake to my repertoire, with a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I substituted orange zest for the lemon and, once again, added some finely chopped candied ginger in the rhubarb mixture. In the cake, I swapped in orange juice and zest and increased the amount of cardamom to 2 tsp., but we are big cardamom lovers, so you may be happy with the amount set out in the recipe.

Some people claim that rhubarb sings, so quickly does it grow. While this may be a bit apocryphal, Monty Python has dedicated an entire song to the wonders of a rhubarb tart:

“Rhubarb tart is oh so very nice/Eternal happiness is a rhubarb tart.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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