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Tinky’s Kitchen: Remembering with rhubarb

  • Tinky Weisblat holds her rhubarb compote dish served with cheese and crackers at her home in Hawley. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat’s rhubarb compote dish, served with cheese and crackers. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat’s steamed rhubarb, topped with whipped cream. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat makes a rhubarb compote at her home in Hawley. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat makes a rhubarb compote at her home in Hawley. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat makes a rhubarb compote at her home in Hawley. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Tinky Weisblat and her new book “€œLove, Laughter and Rhubarb.” Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



For the Recorder
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I love rhubarb for many reasons, and I’m not alone. Hawley’s Selectboard recently named this past May 26 Hawley Rhubarb Day. Their action makes perfect sense to me. Rhubarb resembles my small town in many ways. Like Hawley, rhubarb is colorful and old fashioned, yet adaptable.

Not everyone shares my (and the Selectboard’s) passion for rhubarb. In fact, for many years, I myself disliked this spring food. My farm-raised grandmother served me a lot of stewed rhubarb when I was little.

As far as I was concerned, this reddish substance was not worthy of my palate. It was tart (my wise, thin grandmother didn’t use a lot of sugar). It was stringy. It was old fashioned. I preferred the sweet, the smooth and the new.

I remained convinced that I detested rhubarb until I was well into adulthood. About 20 years ago, I surveyed the rhubarb growing profusely in my yard (it didn’t mind at all that I didn’t eat it) and decided to pick some and cook with it.

I’m not sure why I gave rhubarb another try after all those years. Perhaps it had to do with changing relationships. My grandmother had died by then. Eating a food she loved suddenly seemed like a tribute to her rather than a surrender.

It may be that I had matured enough to see the value of things that were tart, complex and old fashioned.

In the years since, rhubarb has become my favorite food. I love its rich color, its adaptability and its long culinary tradition (just another way of saying “old fashioned”). I love the tartness I once rejected, although I do add a little sugar to just about everything I make with my red stalks.

I also love its place in the agricultural year. It pushes up in our yards in spring before most other foods have a chance to ripen. Rhubarb, therefore, represents hope, sunshine and warm weather.

Above all, it helps me remember my grandmother, my mother and other strong New Englanders I have known. Orphaned at a young age, my grandmother had to endure a long figurative winter of unhappy adoption before she could come into the springtime of her life.

My mother was also very rhubarb-esque in character: tart and strong, yet susceptible to sweetening. She had vividly expressed opinions about pretty much anything, but was willing to listen to arguments. Like rhubarb, she was full of flavor and personality.

I think of them both as I pick rhubarb each year. And I feel that I channel them as I try to come up with new ways to use this versatile food. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice telling me, “Rhubarb is good for you!”

She meant that it was nutritious, and it is. Ground rhubarb root was used as a stomach remedy for centuries. The plant is chock-full of vitamins and minerals. In some studies, it has been shown to fight cancer.

As long as one doesn’t eat the leaves (which are poisonous) and doesn’t overdo the sugar, then, rhubarb is a healthy food.

I believe that rhubarb’s “good for me” properties go beyond nutrition, however. In keeping me tied to the seasons and to local agriculture and in reminding me of my mother and grandmother, it grounds me. In short, it makes me happy.

Here I share a couple of my favorite rhubarb recipes. I hope they will make readers happy.

Rhubarb and Bacon Compost

This spread is really a compote, but one of my recipe-testing guinea pigs misheard me say that word, and I thought “compost” was a fun name.

It makes a delightful sweet-and-savory accompaniment to cheddar or Swiss cheese on crackers or toast. When I made it, I used local bacon from Pekarski’s Sausage in South Deerfield. The bacon flavor really dominates here so I urge you to use the best bacon you can find.

Ingredients:

4 thick slices bacon

2 cups sweet onion slices

2 cups finely chopped rhubarb

3 T cider vinegar

3 T maple syrup

½ tsp. fresh thyme

1 tsp. (maybe a little more!) fresh chives

Fry the bacon in small pieces in a non-aluminum skillet. Add the onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the onion starts to caramelize. Stir frequently.

Add the rhubarb, the vinegar and the maple syrup. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb softens and most of the liquid evaporates.

The timing on this stage will vary depending on the toughness of your rhubarb. When I made the compote, breaking down the rhubarb took about 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Stir in the herbs, and refrigerate until ready to use. Serve with cheese. This recipe yields about 1½ cups of compote.

Stewed Rhubarb

I couldn’t talk about my grandmother’s stewed rhubarb without sharing that classic recipe! I probably use a little more sugar than she did; feel free to adjust this to your taste.

If you’re avoiding sugar and want to use a sugar substitute, add a little water to your rhubarb before cooking (otherwise it will burn), and stir in the appropriate amount of sugar substitute at the very end of the cooking process.

Ingredients:

1 pound rhubarb (about 3 cups chopped)

½ cup sugar

1 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. cinnamon (optional)

Wash and trim the rhubarb. Cut it into 1-inch pieces. In a heavy, nonreactive saucepan, combine all the ingredients and cover. Let the pan sit for an hour or so to allow the rhubarb to juice up, then cook over low heat for five to seven minutes. Keep an eye on the pot to avoid messy boiling over.

Serve plain or add cream or ice cream. Serves four. This recipe may be multiplied.

Tinky Weisblat will serve nibbles and sign copies of her new book, “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb,” on Saturday, June 23, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Museum Store at Historic Deerfield. Her cookery will also be featured on the Hawley Summer Tour on Saturday, June 30.