For at least three weeks, I had been watching all the markets I shop, waiting and hoping to see fresh stalks of spring rhubarb. It doesn’t seem to be a very popular item here in the South, or at least not as much as in my old stomping grounds in upstate N.Y., and there’s good reason—the winter soil is too warm in North Carolina. Rhubarb thrives in areas that have very cold winters, making it a common plant in the snow belt. Some folks around here have never even had the pleasure of tasting it.
When I was young, I remember my Gram always had rhubarb growing near a small outbuilding shed behind her house, and plenty of it. To find it locally, however, takes patience. When I do see it here, it is usually a small quantity, quite expensive, and often placed in one of the obscure sections of the refrigerated case, near the other “weird” produce items (think horseradish root and kohlrabi). I had even checked at the local farmer’s market, to no avail. One grocery produce manager, when asked about the expected arrival of rhubarb, looked puzzled and asked, “what does it look like?”
By the time rhubarb makes it to the supermarket, the leaves have been stripped, and just as well—they are loaded with oxalic acid, so they are inedible and even toxic. The stems, which range in color from bright red to pink to pale green, look like smooth celery stalks and they are equally crisp in texture. I am hard-pressed to describe the flavor of rhubarb other than to say that it is tart, maybe like a cross between a green apple and a lemon. Although technically a vegetable that can be eaten raw, most people cook rhubarb with sugar and use it as a fruit, especially in pies, crumbles, jams and preserves.
My Gram made a delicious rhubarb sauce that was as delicious to me as any applesauce, and I remember asking for it as a topping on vanilla ice cream. In the summer of 2011, on my last visit with my grandmother, who had relocated to Montana to be near my aunt, we enjoyed this dessert together. Lucky for me, my aunt happily shared her recipe for this yummy dessert, which is very adaptable to include other fruits, especially strawberry. Aunt Joy and I were reminiscing the other day about the times I visited her house when I was young, and she made memorable, mouthwatering strawberry-rhubarb jam. It’s a fantastic flavor combination!
Just a couple of days before my mandoline accident, when I decided to shave that extra 1/8” off the end of my finger, I had been overjoyed to finally find fresh rhubarb in one of the markets I shop. My usual time in the kitchen has been abbreviated by my injury (which is driving me crazy, if you want to know the truth), but I have a wonderful and willing husband, Les, who has been my “hands” for some the kitchen tasks that are tricky for me right now. I won’t say that it has all been smooth sailing (I am a bit of a bossy britches), but we are getting better at working together to make some great food, including this fabulous dessert. Les did all the washing and cutting of fresh ingredients, and I did more of the mixing.
This delicious crunch was Les’s first-ever taste of rhubarb, so I leaned a little heavier on the strawberry than I otherwise would. I expected that his sweet tooth might reject the tartness of rhubarb on its own, but he really enjoys the flavor, so next time, I will go all-in with rhubarb. Assuming, of course, I can find it. 😊
1 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and diced
1 1/2 cups strawberries, cleaned and halved
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar* (see notes)
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) salted cold butter
Pinch of kosher salt
My aunt’s original recipe calls for 1 cup sugar, but I split the amount between regular and brown sugars. I use brown sugar in strawberry shortcake and love the rich, warm flavor. Use all regular sugar if you prefer.
I like to use some portion of whole wheat flour in all my baked goods, but if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, increase the amount of all-purpose to 3/4 cup.
- Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center of oven.
- Toss together rhubarb, sugar, flour and ginger transfer into a buttered 8 x 8 glass baking dish.
- Use a pastry blender or pulse with food processor to combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter until mixture appears as crumbs. Toss or lightly pulse with oats just to combine.
- Spread oat topping over rhubarb filling. Sprinkle the top with a pinch of kosher salt.
- Bake at 350° for about 40 minutes, until oat topping is browned and crunchy, and filling is bubbling up around it.
- Serve warm, perhaps with vanilla ice cream. Store leftovers in the refrigerator, and reheat for additional servings.