where is the rhubarb?

I keep meaning to grow rhubarb in my yard.

Every spring, rhubarb has a place on my mental to-be-planted list. Every year, I never quite get around to it. I think this is partly due to the fact that rhubarb feels like such an unintentional plant, growing randomly and wildly wherever it takes root, that the idea of deliberately preparing a bed for it and tending to it seems wrong, inauthentic somehow.

(Then again, so does buying it at the grocery store.)

But still, as a child of rural Maine, I can't shake the feeling that there should be a hulking, canopied patch of rhubarb in the yard, taking over its corner as aggressively as the dandelions claim the rest of the lawn. And it should be the same in the yards of the neighbor and the neighbor's neighbor, and we should all be banging down each others doors with slightly apologetic offerings of armfuls of the pink-streaked stalks, or just one more pie, or maybe even some rhubarb syrup and an invitation to share a drink. This scene, of course, would be repeated throughout the growing season with all the rest of the overly-productive produce - tomatoes, zucchini and the like.


Across the street from my house, conveniently blocking the view (but not the scent!) of the only-a-stone's-throw-away-from-us ocean, is a financial data center. They're not growing anything over there. To our right is a church, with only a scraggly, meager flower bed out front, and on our left is a lovely old house with perennial gardens that are a joy to glimpse across the fence, but since the seldom-there owners use it as a vacation home, they tend not to grow anything edible (and thus needing to be harvested) on their plot of land.

And our house? It's over a hundred years old. At one point in its life, it was a general store. Several decades ago, it was apparently quite the party house (as evidenced by the never-ending collection of broken glass in the yard, slowly being unearthed as each rainstorm erodes ever more of our topsoil). Before it was ours, an old lobstering family owned it. You'd think someone would have made sure there was rhubarb somewhere on the property. Someone didn't.

Where is the rhubarb?

I found some meager, beat-up stalks at the grocery store earlier in the month, but then those disappeared, their place on the produce shelf taken over by the fiddleheads. Josh asked our favorite farmer, the lovely lady who supplies our restaurant with much of our produce during the growing season, if she had rhubarb. To our (and her) amazement, there are no rhubarb patches on her farm.

I had no choice. In order to put rhubarb crisp on the restaurant menu, an idea I'd latched on to and couldn't let go of, I resorted to ordering rhubarb, that prolific, exuberant springtime vegetable that seems to grow with ferocious abandon wherever it can, from a produce supplier.

So, so wrong.

Of course, a week later, after I'd stocked the walk-in with a large supply of the blushing stems, it began showing up at the first farmer's markets of the year. And at the restaurant last Friday, sitting in on a birthday dinner for one of my mom's friends, I was regaled with stories of a hundred-year-old rhubarb patch growing at the birthday girl's grandmother-in-law's house. Rhubarb as tenacious and sour as the elderly Italian woman who had grown it for many decades, after settling in to her new life in Maine. Rhubarb that couldn't be killed.

Rhubarb that has been offered to me, in the form of a couple of hearty rhizomes when it is divided later this year. And so I've been given the opportunity to nurture a cutting of rhubarb with a century of history behind it. To transport it from one old home to another, where it can continue feeding successive generations of Mainers, ones who won't have to give a second thought to the question of where to find rhubarb.

Yes, please.

Rhubarb-Wild Blueberry Crisp with Gingered Whipped Cream
Yields enough for one 3-quart crisp, or 9 individual ramekins

The beauty of a restaurant recipe is in its do-ahead nature. So much of what we make at 40 Paper is a series of components, meant to be assembled - and in some cases, cooked - at the last minute. This crisp is no different. The filling and crumble topping can both be made (separately) in advance and refrigerated until you're ready to bake the crisp. Then it's just a matter of pouring the fruit into your baking vessel of choice, topping it with a thick layer of crumble, and baking until the crisp has browned and the filling is bubbling up around it. And to make things even easier (and fruit crisps that much more of an impulsive event), the crumble topping may be frozen for up to three months. So whenever you've got fruit of any sort laying about, just begging to be baked with some spices, you can be minutes away from having a crisp in the oven. Which might be my very favorite type of planning ahead.

Crisp Filling
508 grams frozen wild blueberries (black plums are also good here, as are raspberries) 
415 grams rhubarb, cut into 1-inch chunks
125 grams light brown sugar
55 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
10 grams cornstarch
1 tablespoon honey
1¼ teaspoons cinnamon
zest of one lemon

Crumble Topping
200 grams Tara's gluten-free pastry flour
150 grams granulated sugar
150 grams light brown sugar
100 grams gluten-free rolled oats
1½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
228 grams (½ pound) unsalted butter, cubed

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

In a mixing bowl, stir together all filling ingredients. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish (or divide among 9 ramekins). Let it sit while you make the crumble topping, to allow the fruit to begin to juice itself. (If you are making the filling in advance, go ahead and pour it into a baking dish. Cover it with foil, and bake for 45 minutes. Cool on a rack, then refrigerate until you're ready to assemble the crisp. You may also find that the filling is so delicious on its own, you can't help but dip into it for a spoonful to go over your ice cream, or granola and yogurt, or pound cake . . . the possibilities are endless!)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine all the topping ingredients except the butter, and mix on low speed until blended. Add the butter, and mix on low until the topping has come together, with very few visible pieces of butter remaining. Breaking it up with your fingers, evenly spread the crumble over the fruit filling. (Freeze any extra topping you may have.)

Bake the crisp for 45-50 minutes (less for individual crisps), or until the topping has browned and the juices are bubbling and thickened. (The color of the filling will be taken over by the deep pigment of the blueberries. Don't worry - one bite and you'll be assured of the rhubarb's presence!) Cool on a rack, and serve warm or at room temperature, topped with gingered whipped cream.

Gingered Whipped Cream
Yields 1 pint

225 grams heavy cream 
14 grams powdered sugar
½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
25 grams candied ginger, cut into very small dice

Combine the cream, sugar, fresh ginger and vanilla in a mixing bowl and whip to soft peak. Gently fold in the candied ginger. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for several hours, and up to overnight, to allow the ginger flavor to deepen. Stir gently before using to reincorporate any separated whey.


all good things

Images from a gluten-free shoot I did at the restaurant late last week. Looking at them, I realize all sorts of things. About the limitations of my camera and lens and how much I love faces and also how different the energy of the restaurant is during the hours I am normally gone from that space. All good things to think about. But mostly, it makes me feel so good to know that our gluten-free diners can have such a fabulous restaurant experience when they step over our threshold. It makes me wish I knew the faces of the people I'm making agnolotti pasta for.

I'll be back soon with the recipe for that rhubarb-wild blueberry crisp I mentioned . . .
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