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Rhubarb redefined

In her mother's kitchen, the vegetable was stewed to mush as a dessert. Today, she and a daughter enjoy new ways to eat - and drink - the sour stalks of spring.

Strawberry rhubarb crisp. (Photo by Jill Capuzzo)
Strawberry rhubarb crisp. (Photo by Jill Capuzzo)Read more

Among the many things I thank my mother for was her sense of resourcefulness. Her Scots-Irish heritage taught her never to waste anything, so when it came to food preparation, this meant taking advantage of whatever grew wild outside. In summer, she'd strip clean the blackberry bushes that grew along the driveway of our Connecticut house. In the fall, we'd climb the gnarly apple and pear trees in our back yard to shake a bounty loose. But in spring, it was all about rhubarb.

Every May, my sisters and I would wait for those sprouts of magenta to push up from winter's carpet of brown leaves and pine needles in the woods behind our house. Heeding our mother's warning to avoid the shiny dark green leaves, which are toxic, we'd snap off the celery-like stalks and gnaw down, puckering up our faces at the sour sensation. My mother was a more practical forager, and would gather up a handful of stalks to bring inside, knowing they'd do nicely as that night's dessert - a significant step up from the usual Jello or My-T-Fine butterscotch pudding.

As resourceful as she was, my mother was also expedient, meaning not particularly inventive. Though she managed to get a square meal on the table for the seven of us each night, there was never anything exciting about what she prepared. Though she did turn her rhubarb harvest into the occasional pie, her go-to preparation was stewed rhubarb, which involved boiling the rhubarb in a saucepan with some sugar and water to produce a brownish-gray stew of stringy mush that only my father seemed to appreciate.

While I've proudly passed along my mother's resourceful genes to my daughters, I've tried to raise the standard on the creative-cooking front. So on a recent Saturday afternoon, I invited my daughter Grace to join me in the kitchen for a little pre-Mother's Day experimentation with - what else? Rhubarb.

Like many other rediscovered food products, rhubarb, which is actually a vegetable, has taken on new dimensions as a darling of today's locally sourced movement, moving beyond dessert. It now shows up in salads, accompanying fish and meat, as a beverage, and, of course, to finish out the meal. In this vein, we decided we'd experiment with rhubarb in savory, sweet, and liquid forms.

Our attempt at the savory side of rhubarb, combining different elements of a few different chutney recipes, was a bust. The tart rhubarb was overwhelmed by the apple cider vinegar.

But the sweet preparations were far more successful: We started with strawberry rhubarb crisp, pairing the complimentary sweet and tart fillings with a punch of orange. I wanted more crunch in the topping, so we added slivered almonds to the oatmeal base. Grace proved to be a skilled student, quartering the strawberries, slicing the rhubarb, and pulsing the topping mixture with an expert's touch to maintain its crumbly texture.

Once this dish went in the oven, it was cocktail hour, so we moved on to rhubarb mojitos. Grace took on the rhubarb simple syrup, which serves as the base for this trendy drink, boiling together the rhubarb, sugar, water with a pinch of nutmeg, then pouring the mixture through a sieve to produce a ruby red syrup. Meanwhile, I muddled fresh mint in the bottom of our glasses, atop which we poured equal parts white rum, rhubarb syrup, and lime juice. Those proportions can be adjusted for those who like their mojitos more sweet than sour.

Our final effort, almost a throwaway, turned out to be the best dish of the day: my own version of stewed rhubarb. The recipe called it stewed, but it is actually baked, and couldn't have been easier to make: laying 4-inch segments of rhubarb in a baking dish, covering them with sugar and orange zest, and baking them in the oven. The result was a wonderful fruit cup, with the rhubarb retaining both its texture and color. Topped with a dollop of mascarpone and a drizzle of honey, it was a perfect dessert. I couldn't help wondering why my mother, who always sought the easiest route in the kitchen, didn't discover that this simple baked version was so much better than her saucepan variety.

It's just one more mystery about my mother, who died three years ago just before Valentine's Day. Three months later, a week after Mother's Day, my father died.

So Mother's Day has become a bittersweet time for me. While I cherish being able to celebrate with my daughters, I sorely miss my mother's comfort and wisdom. This Mother's Day, we'll honor her memory by raising our glasses of rhubarb mojitos.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

Makes 6 servings


4 cups fresh rhubarb, 1-inch dice (4 to 5 stalks)

4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered, if large

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) oatmeal, such as McCann's

3/4 cup slivered almonds

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

Vanilla ice cream, for serving


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. For the fruit, toss the rhubarb, strawberries, 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar, and the orange zest together in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, dissolve the cornstarch in the orange juice and then mix it into the fruit. Pour the mixture into an 8-by-11-inch baking dish and place it on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

3. For the topping, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the brown sugar, salt, almonds, and oatmeal. With the mixer on low speed, add the butter and mix until the dry ingredients are moist and the mixture is in crumbles.

4. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit, covering it completely, and bake for 1 hour, until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Serve warm with ice cream.

Per serving: 698 calories; 10 grams protein; 87 grams carbohydrates; 52 grams sugar; 37 grams fat; 87 milligrams cholesterol; 413 milligrams sodium; 13 grams dietary fiber.

Rhubarb Mojitos

Makes 2 servings


For the rhubarb syrup:

8 ounces chopped rhubarb

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

For the mojitos:

2 ounces white rum

4 ounces rhubarb syrup

8 (or so) mint leaves

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice


Soda water, to top


For the rhubarb syrup:

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a small pot over high heat.

2. Bring the mixture to a boil, let boil for a minute, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced by one-third. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool completely.

3. Strain out the rhubarb and reserve it to spread on toast, use on top of ice cream, or mix in with yogurt. Keep the syrup in a covered container in the fridge - it will stay good for 2 weeks.

For the mojitos:

1. Use a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon to muddle the mint at the bottom of the glasses, mashing the mint leaves well to release the flavor. Add one part rum, one part lime juice, and one part syrup and stir. (Proportions can vary based on taste.)

2. Add ice, top with soda water, and garnish with rhubarb and mint. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 472 calories; 1 gram protein; 106 grams carbohydrates; 102 grams sugar; trace fat; no cholesterol; 10 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

Stewed (Baked) Rhubarb

Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText

6 stalks rhubarb, cut in half lengthwise, then into 3- to 4-inch pieces

11/2 cups sugar

Zest of 1 orange

1 cup bufala ricotta, fresh ricotta, or mascarpone

Honey for drizzlingEndTextStartText

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place rhubarb in a single layer into a medium baking dish. Combine sugar and orange zest and scatter over rhubarb. Transfer to oven and cook, uncovered, until rhubarb is very soft, about 45 minutes. (You may need to add a little water to bottom of baking dish halfway through baking.)

2. Serve in individual dishes, topped with ricotta or mascarpone, drizzled with honey.

Per serving: 278 calories; 5 grams protein; 61 grams carbohydrates; 56 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; 13 milligrams cholesterol; 54 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.