I came home the other day from a week of “vacation” with the full knowledge that leaving Portland and my backyard in summer is just plain silly. I mean, what could be better then sitting quietly in the garden surrounded by the lush growth and blue skies of our long overdue sunny season?
Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but with all the seasonal birthing and production of vegetal offspring going on, the fecundity of the place is off the hook. Add the heat and kaleidoscopic colors, the smells (poet’s jasmine to be sure), and a teeming microbiology (birds do it, bees do it, even single-celled microbes do it), and I am rendered nearly breathless. It can set the mind to wandering.
Lying on the warm grass, popping sun-kissed berries in my mouth, I was given over to idle musings. “Does the postman always ring twice?” I wondered. Not that I think the postman is all that hot (something about the shorts and safari hat kills it for me), it’s just that feeling, smelling, and seeing all that bursting-forth fury of a garden in seasonal overdrive has an effect on me. In the end it was just me and the cat rolling around in the heat preening ourselves in the world of great blessings, but I gotta say, it is sexy time out there.
So why go anywhere else? Besides the hotness factor, there a lot of very good reasons for staying home. Some are making the headlines, like the price of gas. Some are the reasons behind the the headlines, like peak oil and global warming. Some are part of a high-minded conversation about place and community and connecting with the natural world. I like that conversation and tend to live there, but there is something else I have been thinking about: It’s about using up the damn rhubarb and how recipes got to be so funny.
In the midst of all the orgiastic goings on in the backyard is another picture. It was of me harvesting the bits and pieces of the season. There were quite a few garlic scapes, lots of oregano near-bursting with seed (the right time to harvest for drying), some strawberries, raspberries, beets, beet greens of course, currants (black and red), lots and lots of lettuce, and even more rhubarb.
Actually I have been harvesting my four (silly me) rhubarb plants for months now. It started in April and has been going strong ever since. It seems the more I pick the more it grows. Actually, that’s exactly how it is. I should have such stamina.
But this only leads me to the obscured truth behind recipes. They are the end result, not the beginning, of cooking. More rightly, they are the work of folks who have had more time in the home than outside, the ladies and men of civilized society who turned function into form.
No doubt it is a great help to find a guide for using what you have in some semblance of tastiness, but think about how many cookbooks there are out there. Do we really need that many? I mean, give me a general guideline for sautéing and steaming and blanching — La Technique — and I’ll do the rest.
I really don’t need all the extra noise about nuances because I got a cooler full of rhubarb waiting to be cooked, and it doesn’t know from nuances. It wants to be put up so that sometime in the winter when I will be hungry again for rhubarb I can reach for it or, more historically, it will do nicely for turning my grain gruel and hardtack into something only slightly more exciting.
Yes, grain gruel and hardtack. Not the stuff that dreams are made of, but what has stood for the truth behind most of our history as eaters. And I dare say we were glad for it.
So how did we get here? How did we go from the functional world of using what grows close and storing it for the winter to the books and books and books on form that send us out slavishly in search of a pinch of this or that? How is it that we can be rendered lost sheep in the kitchen without a recipe to guide us through the most basic of instincts? How is it that we have turned over our sensations, our tastes, our instincts, and our whimsy to the recipe lords? Or more fundamentally, how is it that “local and in season” has become another fancy food?
My thinking is that we have all become so much a part of a culture defined by recipes (and I am not speaking exclusively about cooking here) that we forget the very primal and basic knowledge of existence. We have become somewhat designed, not just in our fashion but in our functioning. We, as domesticated creatures, have become somewhat scripted in our choices, sissified and manicured in our rush for leisure and high culture. Or more tragically, have borne the weight of industry’s dictates to become urban dwellers struggling to make ends meet by reaching for fast food in a total, if not understandable, abdication of our health and primal knowledge.
Always, always there is the middle ground, and I am happy when someone gives me a new way of thinking about cooking. And I will happily employ a new technique when it is offered, as it was the other day, from a passing bike rider and chef at Noble Rot. Thankfully it was for rhubarb, so I was decidedly piqued with interest. I’m sure he felt the urge to share because of what I was reading — the Preserving book of the old Time-Life series that old foodies are in love with. There, on my porch, in good company and with passionate respect for seasonal ingredients, a recipe, or rather technique, was exchanged by word of mouth, not pen. And I have followed it, and canned it, and hope it will offer me something tasty when the summer’s season has passed.
So I will give it to you and you can pass it on to someone else. And if we are lucky it will not end up in the petrified pages of another cookbook that sends someone slavishly in search of rhubarb in winter. No, no, no. Use what you have, what you have growing, what there is excess of and what is in your imagination. Consider it a template for unleashing the primal and fertile world of self-reliance. Un-poodle yourself. Get fecund and wait for your husband to get home. Tell him how much you love him and then serve up a big bowl of garlic scapes with beets, beet greens, currants, oregano, strawberries, and rhubarb, and see how he smiles. Hey now, it’s sexy time.
Cut up as much rhubarb as you have; I did it in little 1-inch squares like Gregg. He said to cover or “cure” them in sugar, lots of sugar, over the top of your rhubarb and left to sit for four or five days. I think I did six. I kept them at room temperature for a few days and then moved them downstairs on top of the deep freezer. I think room temperature would be fine.
Gregg says he puts some rosemary in there and removes it after steeping. That sounds great; lots of herbs sound intriguing, but, uncharacteristically, I wanted to start straight. So I steeped it, stirring as needed to assure the sugar dissolved with the juice rendered from the rhubarb. It will happen.
After the steeping, you remove the herbs (if any). You drain the syrup into a pot. You put the reserved “rhubarb jewels” into a canning jar — as many as you need and whatever size you want. I used 8-ounce jars.
You boil the syrup. You pour it over the rhubarb and you can it for 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner.
Gregg says that at the restaurant they serve it with some cornmeal and olive-oil cake, which I think sounds ever so yum. I will have to try it out in the dead of winter. Add some crème fraîche to top it off. Ooh la la, it will be . . . oh yeah, you know it.
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better