Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shannon Houlihan: Everyone Loves Rhubarb?

Ever notice that during the period of May through mid-June there is a blitz of food articles, expounding upon the wonders the rhubarb? These stories make plentiful use of words like “abundant” “grandmother” “delightful” and “cherry red”. Words like this about a food make me feel pretty excited. Particularly when the food in question practically grows wild all around me. So I was pretty excited to really dive right into some rhubarby adventures this year.

This is the point where I should tell you I did not grow up eating rhubarb. My mother never served it to us, and as a result it never really made it into my culinary repertoire. As an adult, I have had rhubarb a few times, most notably in a rhubarb cake my sister’s mother-in-law Antoinette Leone makes. Disclaimer here: Mrs. Leone is an old-style Italian-mama cook, the type who does the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and Ricotta Pie for Easter with amazing tomato sauces, eggplant, sausage and peppers and you name it the rest of the year, so let’s face it, EVERYTHING she makes is delicious. And this cake is no exception. I did make a Strawberry-Rhubarb pie a few years ago- but honestly, I didn’t eat too much of it. My husband is the type of guy who will grab a stalk of rhubarb right out of the ground and munch the whole thing down like celery- so honestly, that pie did not have a long life ahead of it.

But this year I was determined to really go to town. I had discovered some recipes for rhubarb conserve in an old newspaper in the Google News archives. An extensive collection of my hometown newspapers has been archived, which allows me the joy of being able to while away hours upon hours on the computer searching through old editions of the paper. I mainly look for family-history related articles, but I always check the food pages for interesting old recipes. As a side note, one thing I’ve learned looking through papers from the first half of the 20th century is that people would put virtually anything and I mean ANYTHING into a gelatin mold back in the day. The second thing is that canning recipes, back during a period of time when people canned as a way to truly preserve food and feed their families, rather than just as a hobby, were far more diverse and creative than the type of canning recipes we are presented with in your standard Ball Jar or Blue Ribbon recipe book today. I happened across a couple of rhubarb gems in a 1935 edition of The Schenectady Gazette in a recurring column that gave advice to young brides most hilariously named “Gladys, Jennie and Eunice.” In this article were three different conserves, one with rhubarb, pineapple & coconut, one with rhubarb, oranges, and grapefruit, and final containing rhubarb and a variety o dried fruits. All were jam-packed with exotic spices and interesting ingredients I didn’t even know people used back then, like crystallized ginger. Sounded delicious! And what a great way to preserve the bounty of springtime rhubarb all while indulging in a little historical experiment.

In preparation for my little culinary adventure, I went over and checked out my friend’s rhubarb patch one night after work. I grabbed a few stalks with the intent of coming back to pick more the next day. I woke up in the next morning and those rhubarb stalks, with their bright ruby red stalks were just staring at me, demanding to be cooked into something. I also had a couple almost-black bananas sitting on the counter next to them giving me a guilt trip as well. So I came up with the bright idea of making a rhubarb-banana bread. I did a quick Google search to ascertain whether or not this was within the realm of possibility, and sure enough, there were hundreds of rhubarb banana bread recipes on the net. So I figured I was safe.

I used my standard banana bread recipe, which I personally think is the best banana bread out there. It comes from Laurel’s Kitchen, a vegetarian cookbook that first came out in the 1970’s . I have made this recipe hundreds of times, to the point where I now have to keep a rubber-band around my copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, the spine cracked apart at that page in the book, the recipe covered with dough stains. It is made with whole wheat flour and wheat germ. If you are like me and not a fan of overly-sweet, mushy white flour banana breads, this is the recipe for you. I did decide to add a extra cup of whole oats to the standard recipe to account for the added moisture from the rhubarb. I cut a cup and a half of rhubarb into small pieces and liberally sprinkled it with sugar.

Then I made the bread, mixing in the rhubarb at the end. I threw it in the oven and 50 minutes later, had a beautiful dark golden brown bundle of goodness sitting on my counter. I was pretty exited at this point, I love the idea of eating food that is not only chuck full of whole grains, but contains a nice locally grown fruit as well. (Rhubarb is actually a vegetable, but, according to Wikipedia: “Rhubarb is usually considered to be a vegetable; however, in the United States, a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit, it was to be counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties” ).

I sliced up a piece and…ick! The bread tasted fine but the rhubarb, well…it is mushy! Like I mentioned above, I’m a bit rhubarb-ignorant, and I had somehow gotten in my head it was going to be firm, like an apple. This was NOT like an apple. It was little pieces of mushiness interfering with my banana bread zen. I couldn’t even finish the slice. I gave some to my professional in-home taste-tester (the husband) and he said it was great. But he is one of those stalwart rhubarb-fans who believe rhubarb is one of the earth’s most wonderful gifts, so it doesn’t surprise me that he liked it.

As for me, it forced me into the realization: I don’t like rhubarb. It is mushy and weird. As a result, I simply could not bring myself to execute my plan for rhubarb conserves. I tried to convince myself it would be good in the conserve form, but every time I thought of 30 jars of that mushy stuff sitting on my shelves, my stomach turned a little bit. So, this is the Little Rhubarb Post that Never Came to Be. I do hope rhubarb fans out there are braver than I am, and go ahead and give preserving rhubarb a try.

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Shannon Houlihan is a Public Health Nurse in Warren County who spends her free time obsessing about food.

After many years of home cooking and baking, she has determined to master the arts of food preservation including canning, fermenting, charcuterie, and cheese making.

2 Responses

  1. catharus says:

    So might you share the recipe?? Thanks!

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