This weekend is forecast as the last weekend possible for frost to threaten the Boston area until autumn; breathe a sigh of relief: warmer weather is here to stay. With spring in full force, I begin to play favorites with my produce, buying mostly what is in season and grown locally whenever possible. I shell more fava beans and English peas than any sane person ever would, but one of my favorite—and fairly low maintenance—foods to cook in the springtime is rhubarb.
Rhubarb is a fruit with many contradictions: for starters, it’s actually a vegetable. It’s typically seen in sweet dishes; eaten by itself, it would make you pucker. It’s a feisty, hardy plant, but softens up pretty quickly in a pan with the aid of a little heat. It grows fairly well without a lot of sunlight, which many edible plants do not. And, oddly enough, the leaves attached to the edible stalks of the rhubarb plant are lethal. I don’t know why, but having toxic parts makes me quite fond of rhubarb as a vegetable. Probably for the same reason why I like the planet Venus: it has an inhospitable climate and rains sulfuric acid, and can still pull off being a sultry symbol of beauty. Anyway, rhubarb is a lovely rose-colored hue and also holds court as the James Bond of produce, being cool, complex: and badass. The balance between allure and imminent death gets me every time.
Growing up, I can remember my mom sending me out to her garden to pick rhubarb for raspberry rhubarb pie. We lived in an area surrounded by trees and had only dappled sunlight; the rhubarb thrived. She also planted tulips, another sign of spring, but they didn’t fair quite as well. It wasn’t actually the limited sun that got them: it was the woodchucks. At night, they would bite the heads off my mother’s flowering tulips. Things got particularly ugly one spring when my mom had quite enough of her decapitated tulips: and my dad got the shotgun. I don’t really know if any woodchucks were actually killed (or that things ever really improved for my mother and her tulips). The woodchucks never did mess with the rhubarb though. They knew better.
While we humans can’t eat tulips, we can eat rhubarb, or at least the stalks. And so each spring I look forward to rhubarb. This year, I decided to really sex things up by adding some Grand Marnier and a hint of rose water. Don’t fret, roses are edible, though I suppose if you were trying to kill someone—James Bond style—you could always substitute tulips instead and throw in some rhubarb leaves for good measure.
Raspberry Rose Rhubarb Jam (After All, You Only Live Twice)
1 orange (preferably organic), juice and zest
1 to 1½ pounds rhubarb, divided
Pinch of salt
1¼ to 1½ cups sugar
1 vanilla bean pod
2/3 cup frozen raspberries, unsweetened
2 tbsp Grand Marnier, or other orange-flavored spirit
1-2 tbsp rose water*
*Whole Foods or a Middle Eastern grocer would carry this; you could also order it online from the spice company my sister works for in Chicago, they have truly amazing spices: The Spice House. Or just omit it or try almond extract instead for a less floral flavor.
Zest your orange and reserve the zest; if you don’t have a microplane, you can remove the white pith from the orange peel with a knife, cut the peel into thin strips, and then mince the peel. Cut your rhubarb into ½ inch pieces and add ¾ of the rhubarb to a pan with the juice of the orange and cook on medium heat. Add a pinch of salt, the orange zest, and about 1 cup or so of your sugar. Cut open the vanilla bean, scrap out the seeds, and then add both the seeds and pod to the rhubarb. Let it cook down, this will take about 10-20 minutes or so. Add the rest of the rhubarb and raspberries and let cook about 5-10 minutes more, adding additional sugar to taste and additional water if it starts getting too thick. Add the Grand Marnier and rose water and cook for about 1-2 minutes more, until the flavors blend. Remove the vanilla bean pod.
Makes about 1½-2 cups.
I don’t bother with canning; I find freezing jam easier and less of a headache. If you are going to can this recipe, you may want to check on your sugar proportions. I freeze the jam in a glass jar with a metal lid, but any freezer safe container with a tight fitting top would work.
This jam is particularly indulgent with a little whole milk Greek yogurt for breakfast. Or, if you really want to be over the top, you could put the jam and a dollop of the yogurt (or freshly whipped cream, for that matter) on buckwheat pancakes. You’d be keeping it in the family: rhubarb and buckwheat are botanical cousins.