Unless I'm forgetting a pivotal rhubarb-related incident from the wilds of my childhood, I do not hold any nostalgia-based predilection for it. Not an ounce, not an iota.
I can't recall my first taste of rhubarb. I can't even tell you, in a tone with longing evident, of the time I had a certain dish that changed my life forever because of its rhubarbed glory.
I learned to cook rhubarb because those I love the most like it very much. A boringly straightforward reason, I know.
It is not for lack of want, because I do believe that everyone should have a rhubarb story. And if I'm being my most upfront self, I should admit it was partly this shortcoming of my storytelling that had me quiet the last few days. You see, I wanted to talk about rhubarb, and the rhubarb syrup that is essential to my new favourite drink, but couldn't decide upon where to begin.
But now I do. The other day I was someone's backyard to celebrate a family birthday. There were ladies in broad sun hats and floral-print dresses. Children, including my own, ran barefoot in determined pursuit of butterflies. There were stories scored by that that specific laughter synonymous with family; familiar, teasing and affectionate.
We walked among flowers in bloom and those just beginning. I walked with Benjamin across soft grass, knelt down to pull back a parasol of leaves to reveal slender stalks of green turned blush. "It's Strawberry Rhubarb," I was told by his Great Grandfather. "That plant has been in our family forever."
You can't beat that.
I hardly would believe this peaceful place smack in middle of a city, at the height of the heat of a hot, hot June day, could exist so perfectly sweetly had I not been there myself. An afternoon when ticks of the clock matched the imagined click of a shutter, each moment a worthy capture and keeping.
That, right there, was my rhubarb moment. It's the story that I'll stick with.
This syrup made its way on the scene earlier than all of that. I made it over a week prior, and have been sipping it steadily in drinks. So steadily, that I've become mildly addicted to it. Muddled with mint, then lightened with sparkling water, it is suggestive of cream soda with a heady, rounded vanilla sweetness, but herbal and sour at the same time.
We're almost out, I'm sorry to say. In happy news, I've just had word that some more rhubarb, from that very garden I mentioned, has been picked and is on its waiting for us. My heart, feet and greedy appetite skipped at that.
If you try this, I think yours might too. Happy summer, friends.
A tweaked version of a Nigella Lawson method. I like my finished syrup to have the approximate consistency of maple syrup. Depending on the rhubarb used and your own tastes, it might be necessary to further reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stove (after the fruit has been sieved out).
A generous 2 pounds (1 kilogram) rhubarb, cleaned and trimmed
3/4 to 1 cup caster sugar
1 fresh vanilla bean, split
Juice from half a lime, optional
Preheat an oven to 375°F (190 °C).
Cut the rhubarb into chunks, mine were about 2-inches in length. Skinny stalks can be a bit longer, fat ones can be more stout - you want everything to cook in reasonably similar time.
Pour the 3/4 cup of the sugar into a large roasting pan or ovenproof casserole. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean with the dull side of a knife and drop them into the sugar. Add the bean too. Using your hands, rub the vanilla seeds and pod into the sugar, breaking up clumps of seeds as you go. Once thoroughly mixed, add the rhubarb and toss to coat.
Cover the dish with aluminum foil and roast for 35-45 minutes until the rhubarb is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, but not falling to mush. Remove the foil and roast for another 5-10 minutes, to further reduce the collected liquid (keep in mind, the syrup will continue to thicken as it cools).
Using a fine-meshed sieve, strain the juices from the rhubarb. Stir the fruit to extract as much liquid as possible, but be careful not to push any solids through that might mar the clarity of the syrup. Remove the vanilla pod from the fruit in the sieve.
At this point the fruit can be reserved for another use.
While the syrup is warm but not hot, check for sweetness. Depending on your taste and the specific qualities of your rhubarb, you might want to add a bit more sugar or a squeeze of lime. Once to your liking, chill thoroughly.
The syrup can be used as you would a simple syrup in cocktails and lemonade, or simply over ice with sparkling water and mint. It's particularly nice over scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Keep both the fruit and syrup refrigerated until needed.
Makes around 2 cups, depending on the fruit and the thickness of the reduction.
- I like to fork the fruit into a chunky compote, then eat it with Greek yogurt, and an extra pour of syrup to finish.