rhubarb healing

rhubarb.jpg

Cutting fresh rhubarb stalks just after dawn on an April morning is a simple pleasure—for all the senses. There was a chill in the air when I went out yesterday, courtesy of a warm and cloudless spring day that gave way to night and dropping temperatures, cold enough to lay a skin of ice on the water in the steel garden bucket. I took my Chinese knife, the one with the razor-sharp, curved blade perfect for the task at hand—to snap off the stems from the two main plants and then trim two pounds of stalks of their broad leaves.

Cutting fresh rhubarb stalks just after dawn on an April morning is a simple pleasure—for all the senses. There was a chill in the air when I went out yesterday, courtesy of a warm and cloudless spring day that gave way to night and dropping temperatures, cold enough to lay a skin of ice on the water in the steel garden bucket. I took my Chinese knife, the one with the razor-sharp, curved blade perfect for the task at hand—to snap off the stems from the two main plants and then trim two pounds of stalks of their broad leaves.

Just the act of trimming was a sensuous treat. Sweet and tangy, fresh rhubarb delights the senses, similar to the way a citrus scent rises when you peel an orange. There's something remarkable about the aroma of cut rhubarb that I love. I've heard people say they don't like rhubarb and I just don't understand.

Now, for perspective: this all began 22 years ago when I and my family moved into a rented house on Colorado's Front Range. I was starting a new teaching job and we needed a place to stay for a while, until we could buy a house in what was then a very affordable market south of Denver. I had done some gardening in different places I'd lived—New York, California, Montana—but I had a lot to learn about the particular patterns of gardens in this region. One thing I did not understand at all then was that if you want to know what to grow in a new garden, your best bet is to look around at other gardens right near you—literally. Neighborhoods are microclimates, and as I would later learn, even a patch of yard has its own "nanoclimates."

I was intent on putting in a salad garden that first year and saw an existing but overgrown bed out by our back fence, so I did what seemed right at the time: starting way too early in the season, I cleared the patch. This meant prising grass roots out of the bed, and then digging deeply to turn over the soil, which to my surprise was decent stuff—rich, friable, and full of earthworms. But I also found something else: a half-dozen large, woody, orange-colored roots, roughly the size of footballs. I had no idea what they were, and presuming these were undesirables, I dug them out and disposed of them. Idiot move.

Those were a row of well established rhubarb plants, and had I left them be, they soon would have yielded a plethora of delicious stalks, among the first things any Front Range gardener gets to enjoy in early spring. Too late, I realized my mistake. A small root mass had survived my destructive shovel and sent up a few troubled stalks and when I saw it was rhubarb and checked out the roots, I knew what I'd done. This was reinforced when my neighbor's patch, adjacent to mine and left utterly neglected, gave rise to a row of huge, glossy rhubarb leaves on stalks tinted that telltale crimson on bright green.

We moved shortly afterwards and I set to work putting in what would be the garden I still keep. Among my first goals was to make recompense by putting in a few rhubarb plants. My attempts were not successful. At one point I managed to get some going from seed, which is challenging enough, but I'd picked the wrong location and my multi-year effort to coax them to robust health finally failed. I was cursed. Eventually, I gave up on the idea.

But a few years ago, I came upon some very nice rhubarb starts at a local nursery and having learned from experience, I found a good garden location for them. They were leggy and weak looking that first year but did make it through the winter. However, the yield was not good in that second year, and I had not expected it would be. I was patient, and that patience has finally paid off.

rhubarb2.jpg

But a few years ago, I came upon some very nice rhubarb starts at a local nursery and having learned from experience, I found a good garden location for them. They were leggy and weak looking that first year but did make it through the winter. However, the yield was not good in that second year, and I had not expected it would be. I was patient, and that patience has finally paid off.

This year's early spring has brought the rhubarb bursting through the soil. I've been watching carefully, out among a garden still mostly bare soil at this point. So it was that this week, I determined that there were enough heavy stalks on the plants to make for a good harvest.

Another bit of learning came my way during this time that is so obvious, I have to wonder why it took so long to arrive. Some of our favorite food combinations exist as they do because the different produce needed ripens concurrently. Of course. For example, gardens typically deliver delicious rhubarb and plump strawberries at about the same time.

pie1.jpg

Another bit of learning came my way during this time that is so obvious, I have to wonder why it took so long to arrive. Some of our favorite food combinations exist as they do because the different produce needed ripens concurrently. Of course. For example, gardens typically deliver delicious rhubarb and plump strawberries at about the same time.

In my region, this timing is not exact. Rhubarb is ready April-May and my strawberry patch fruits best May-June. But I usually find good, early-season strawberries available at the market, so I can live with that. All that's needed for a fantastic pie is on hand and the recipe is simple enough—sliced rhubarb, sliced strawberries, sugar and spices, and a homemade crust. I love the way these basic things look in early preparation—each main component bursting with flavor, color, and texture that will not truly yield its magic until combined the right way. I rolled out the crusts, mixed the fruit, and chilled it all for a couple hours—enough time for juices to gather—and then assembled the pies while the oven preheated.

If you're looking at this post, and are seized with the desire to do as I have done, promise yourself that you will not use a bland, pre-processed pie crust. Ever. Again. Find a good, basic crust recipe and take the time, which isn't much. A good strawberry-rhubarb pie deserves that much, and as some will attest, the right crust can be the star, not the supporting cast, in this endeavor.

pie2.jpg

If you're looking at this post, and are seized with the desire to do as I have done, promise yourself that you will not use a bland, pre-processed pie crust. Ever. Again. Find a good, basic crust recipe and take the time, which isn't much. A good strawberry-rhubarb pie deserves that much, and as some will attest, the right crust can be the star, not the supporting cast, in this endeavor.

The rest is easy—a short run at high temp to get the crust established, then 80 minutes at a reduced temp to let the flavors blend, set the juices to thicken and bubble, and the crust to turn golden. Can I just say the whole house smelled like heaven?

This pie had work to do. I heard this week from a good friend that there was trouble on her horizon and like anyone might, I was fighting the feeling of being helpless to do anything about it. And it dawned on me that I could deliver this pie to her door, still warm, on a Saturday afternoon, and that would be the right kind of healing.

pie3.jpg

This pie had work to do. I heard this week from a good friend that there was trouble on her horizon and like anyone might, I was fighting the feeling of being helpless to do anything about it. And it dawned on me that I could deliver this pie to her door, still warm, on a Saturday afternoon, and that would be the right kind of healing.

Eventually, she and I will sit down and talk through the difficult news. But for now, the pie has made a point. Trouble is a given in this world. A good strawberry rhubarb pie is not a given, which makes it a powerful affirmation of life. A dollop of good vanilla ice cream on top turns this into a meal unto itself. If you manage to save some for the morning, you can start out your day with another slice, alongside a cup of steaming coffee—and if that doesn't make the day blossom for you, what could?

So today's garden-to-kitchen episode was more than two decades in the making. If I go back to my mistake in uprooting those rhubarb plants, and carry forward through the false starts and eventual success with establishing new plants in my garden, I can see today's culmination as worth all the effort. I hope all that goes into the flavors, and also into the healing.