Simple Tomato Soup

Turning summer’s fresh fruit into a warm fall soup
As the first day of Autumn has come and gone, I’m knee-deep in garden cleanup, preparing it for the long winter months ahead. Before removing the tomato plants from the garden, I picked the last tomatoes—the kings of the summer garden—and was inspired to make them into a warming fall soup to chase away the chill of the autumn air.

This version of tomato soup that I’m offering retains the tomato’s fresh flavor and will remind you more of a summer gazpacho, but it’s a warm, milk-enriched version that, when paired with good bread and a green salad, will be the star of a fall evening meal.

I started by washing the tomatoes and cutting off the stems. Then, I puree them in the food processor with no scalding water or peeling involved. I took two green and one red bell pepper from the garden and two small onions and processed these into a separate puree.

I covered the bottom of a stockpot with good olive oil and allowed it to heat before adding the pepper and onion puree. I sauteed this mixture for about five to eight minutes, constantly stirring to avoid burning. I then added the tomato puree and allowed it to come to a boil and finished it by turning the heat back to a simmer for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, I added whole milk until the bright red color turned to a golden orange, reminiscent of the turning autumn leaves, and reheated without allowing it to come back to the boil. Salt and black pepper to taste was all the seasoning required.

Fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions combined with minimal processing, and a short cooking time allows the fresh tomato flavor to shine through, and wholesome milk adds a richness that helps warm the body and soul.

I hope you enjoy this rustic dish as much as I did, and I look forward to hearing from you about your fall activities in both the kitchen and the garden.

Streamside Produce—From Farm to You

I stopped by an excellent produce farm this weekend and found a real gem here in the Kishacoquillas Valley. Streamside Produce is just one mile off of Route 655, east of Allensville, Pennsylvania. As I drove down the long farm lane, I could not help but notice field after field of all sorts of produce, thus assuring me that their goods are grown right here on the farm. Although the purchase of regional produce from other growers, either directly or through one of the many regional produce auctions, is an acceptable practice to fill the needs of the farm stand due to demand or perhaps crop failures, I prefer to buy product that has been grown on location whenever possible.

I found a large, well-run, and clean farm operation featuring many late-season favorites, including tomatoes, beets, and squash of all types, as well as fall mums and decorative gourds and pumpkins. I also found late-season sweet corn and the last of the watermelon and cantaloupe.

The Streamside Produce tables also offer local honey and farm-made jams and jellies, and you’ll find a quality line of farm-baked goods like dinner rolls, breads, sweet goods, and pies. I can personally attest that the egg custard pie was outstanding.

So, when you’re in the Belleville/Allensville area and want to buy grown-on-the-farm produce, plug 97 Streamside Lane, Belleville, into your GPS to visit Streamside Produce, one of many local fresh-food producers that make living in Central Pennsylvania a real joy.

Ricotta Dumplings! Comfort Food for Slow Times

As the pace of modern life has slowed to a crawl over the past week, my thoughts have turned often to those who are troubled and fearful due to a world that is and will be fundamentally changed. I have found that everyone is concerned for both the health of our fellow man and our economic life and how best to balance these two concerns during these trying times. And I continue to keep our leaders, health care workers, business owners, friends, family, and neighbors in my thoughts and prayers.

I encourage each of you during this time of imposed slow living to spend minimum time with traditional and social media and immerse yourself in positive activities that support self-sufficiency and positive mental health. Cooking, gardening, crafting, housekeeping, reading, spending time with family, walking, and enjoying nature all contribute to a simple life well lived and can form the basis for contentment and happiness in both good and troubled times.

In fact, I believe that within this dark cloud of uncertainty could very well lay the proverbial silver lining. That silver lining would be that we all take this time of pause to reevaluate what is important in our lives and begin to develop a well-lived life that embraces all that is positive in this modern world but is grounded in the simple activities of the past. This means a life lived within a seasonal perspective that is respectful of our natural world, providing each of us a renewed sense of happiness, self-sufficiency, and hope.

I want to share a recipe that is simple to make but is the basis for a wonderful meal that can be enjoyed alone or with family at home. The kitchen staff at Stonefly Café find this to be a very popular dinner feature served with a simple tomato pan sauce. I have changed up the sauce a bit to showcase the smokiness of the bacon and one of my favorite herbs—fresh rosemary.

I hope that you will enjoy this dish as much as I did when I prepared it for my lunch today.

Please feel free to share this post with all your home-bound friends and neighbors, and I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

All the best to you and yours.

Ricotta Dumplings in a Simple Pan Sauce

Dumplings:

Ingredients:

7 Ounces Ricotta

3 Egg Yolks (may have to kneed in a fourth yolk if you find the dough to be slightly dry)

1 ¼ Cup All-Purpose Flour

Additional Flour for dusting the board and hands

2 Tablespoons of freshly shredded Parmesan Cheese

1 Pinch of both Salt and Black Pepper

A generous sprinkle of freshly grated Nutmeg

Method:

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and mix with your hands until the dough comes away from the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Move the dough to a floured board and kneed until it becomes smooth and supple. Cut the dough into approximately six pieces and roll each into a log shape on the floured board with each log of dough approximately ½ to ¾ inch in diameter. Cut each log with a knife into ½-inch sections. Dust the cut dumplings lightly with flour and layer on a platter until ready to cook. Do not forget to cover the cut dumplings with a damp dish towel or paper towel to assure that the dumplings do not dry out.

When the sauce is prepared, the dumplings should be added to a large pan of boiling salted water one at a time and stirred to assure that they do not clump together. When they float to the surface, allow to cook for a minute or two longer. Then, they can be added to the sauce.

Sauce:

Ingredients:

3 Cloves of Fresh Garlic, peeled

1 Small Fresh Chili or a Pinch or Two of Dried Chili Flakes

2 Whole Anchovy Filets in Oil

1 Rasher of Bacon

6 to 8 Fresh Rosemary Leaves

1 6-Ounce can of Tomato Paste

1 28-Ounce can of Crushed Tomato

Parmesan Cheese for Grating

Pinch of both Salt and Black Pepper

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Method:

Place the garlic, chili, anchovies, salt, pepper, and rosemary with a tablespoon of olive oil in a mortar and pestle and grind into a paste. If you have no mortar and pestle, just finely chop all the ingredients on a board, excluding the olive oil.

In a sauté pan, add olive oil and the rasher of bacon finely chopped and allow to render the fat from the bacon. To this add the paste that you prepared in the mortar and pestle and allow to sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to overcook and burn the garlic.

Add to the pan the tomato paste and the crushed tomato and allow to cook for 8 to 10 minutes. At this point, you may allow the sauce to sit off the heat until the dumplings are cooked.

Final Assembly:

Have the sauce simmering in the sauté pan, and when the dumplings have cooked, transfer the dumplings to the saucepan with a slotted spoon allowing some cooking water to be transferred to the sauce as well. Toss the dumplings in the sauce to coat, and if the sauce is a bit thick, just thin with a few spoons of dumpling cooking water.

Plate the dumplings and sauce and sprinkle fresh parmesan cheese over the top to your taste.

Garnish with a fresh spring of rosemary.

Yields two servings.

When combined with a fresh salad, crusty bread and butter, good cheese, fresh fruit, and wine of your choosing, the perfect dinner or lunch is at hand.

Make a Hot, Savory Turkey Soup for a Cold, Unruly December

The kitchen fire crackled away this morning as I lingered over both a cup of coffee and my plans for this week’s kitchen activities. The cooler weather, along with the root vegetables and cold-weather greens I found at the farm stand, has inspired me to enjoy more stews and soups on my table, and this morning’s planning included how to do just that.

The Thanksgiving celebration also adds to my larder the inevitable treasure of leftovers that I plan to make into one of my favorites—a hearty turkey soup. Not only is homemade turkey soup delicious, but it is, I believe, a great example of how the soup pot is the foundation of a well-run kitchen. I’ll use the soup pot to take full advantage of the farm root crops and greens and the remains of the holiday leftovers to turn all into a nice, hot soup that will soothe my soul and my frugal nature.

The first step, after the celebratory Thanksgiving meal, requires me to make sure all the leftover turkey and any soup-worth vegetables are packed away. The next step is to pick any remaining meat from the turkey carcass and add that to our supply of leftovers. Don’t forget to reserve any pan drippings and/or broth from roasting the turkey, as these can all be used in the soup as well.

I then take the entire carcass and place it in a stockpot with a single onion cut in half, two carrots peeled and cut in half, and one stalk of celery cut in half. I do not take a lot of time preparing these vegetables as I am using them only to flavor the broth and will not be using them in the final soup. Cover the contents of the pot with water, and when this has come to a boil, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about two to three hours.

When the pot of broth has finished its three-hour simmer on the stovetop, allow it to cool, and strain through a colander to remove the vegetables and turkey carcass. The remaining broth will be a rich and nutritious base for this savory soup.

Now, with the broth completed, we can move on to the actual preparation of the soup. I begin with two onions, four stalks of celery, and four carrots that I clean and chop into bite-size pieces. These vegetables can be sautéed in a preheated soup pot with a little olive oil until just starting to soften. At this time, I add my turkey meat that has been chopped into bite-size pieces, any vegetables left from the holiday celebration, and the farm stand produce, which can include sweet potatoes, chard, spinach, turnips, carrots, and kale. Also, frozen or canned corn is always a welcome addition.

I now add the broth and any saved pan drippings from the roasting of the turkey, and bring the pot to a simmer. At this time, you can add pasta, egg noodles, rice, barley, or lentils to enhance the already flavorful and rustic soup.

I would suggest enjoying a bowl right out of the pot before saving a couple of servings in the refrigerator for later in the week or for lunches and before freezing the rest. This great soup is perfect for dinner by the fireside or for a quick, hot, savory meal that will be required to get you through December’s holiday preparations. 

Making Mosto Cotto

The cool days of autumn have inspired me to fill my pantry to the brim in anticipation of the coming holiday and winter season. My most recent endeavor is an old Italian specialty that is easy to make and is a great addition to the daily table. It’s also the basis for some special treats to share with friends and family as we gather by the fireside to while away the dark days of winter.

Mosto Cotto, or cooked must, is an age-old condiment that, in its simplest form, is the fresh-pressed juice, or must, of the grapes obtained during the wine-making process. The must has been allowed to simmer at the back of the stove as it reduces to one third its original volume. Although thick, syrupy, and sweet, much like a grape preserve, the real magic begins when you fill swing-top bottles and store them away in a dark, cool cellar or at the back of a pantry for weeks, months, or even years. During this aging period, the thickened juice builds character and complexity that can be filled with—depending on the variety of grapes you’re working with—the flavors of figs, currants, cherries, raisins, or spice. This is very similar to balsamic vinegar, as the cooked must is the basis of this well-known condiment as well.

You can use this treasure of the pantry as a traditional sweetener when combined with honey or drizzled over cheese and meats as part of a rustic charcuterie display. Also, try topping off a dessert, or use it as the basis for a flavor-enhancing sauce for both meat or fish dishes.

I would anticipate the most challenging part of making the Mosto Cotto will be sourcing the juice or must. You could press your own grapes with a home wine press or a simple potato masher. In addition to this process, a simple request of a local winemaker will most likely result in one’s ability to obtain the juice as well. Remember, this is the fresh unfermented juice of the grape and will often include the stems and seeds that can be strain from the juice either before processing or after cooking.

Next, place the juice on the stove to simmer away for a few hours until it reduces by at least one-half to two-thirds and has become syrupy and has a cooked aroma. Place the reduced must into sterilized glass jars. (I prefer the swing-top variety.) Store in a dark, cool location for at least a few weeks to a month. Remember, as in many things, patience is a virtue, and the longer you allow the Mosto Cotto to age, the more robust and complex this elixir becomes.

A well-stocked pantry is an essential element of a simple life well lived and the basis for kitchen success. Add this simple, historic, and made-it-yourself condiment to your pantry to share with friends and family or when you savor a few private minutes away from the worries of the world.

Vegetable Gratin and Corn and Tomato Salad

The sound of rain woke me from my slumber this Labor Day morning, and as I had my breakfast on the porch to the soothing sound of rain, my thoughts turned to the garden. The showers of last evening and this morning will help nurture the garden throughout late summer and early fall, providing us with many more weeks of a bountiful harvest.

The Labor Day weekend has traditionally been thought of as the last of the summer season. But I believe that here in Pennsylvania and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region that the beginning of fall does not begin for a few more weeks. In fact, I consider the month of September a period of late summer with the gardens and markets continuing to offer up the quintessential garden treats that one associates with summertime itself. Tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, and peppers are abundant. And although not falling out of every farm stand and roadside wagon, sweet corn will be available throughout the next few weeks as well if one takes the time to search it out.

We humans like to define and relegate our lives within strict schedules and agendas. Although this approach supports our busy lives and careers, it is not the perspective of the natural world. Nature, on the other hand, has a more casual approach to the rhythmic and seasonal passage of time. And if one can integrate their modern lives into this natural progression, I would expect one will find a certain fulfillment and enhanced level of peace within this journey we call life. A simple life well lived is based on this rhythmic passage of time. So, I would suggest not to rush it, but to enjoy what the late summer season has to offer.

Below you will find two great recipes to help you enjoy the late summer seasonal bounty. The first is a very French-style Rustic Gratin that will allow you to enjoy the full seasonal flavors of summer and fall. Also, a Summer Corn and Tomato Salad, adapted from Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, features sweet corn and sun-ripened tomatoes dressed with a simple vinaigrette that allows the true flavor of these simple garden ingredients to shine.

I hope you enjoy both, and let me know which is your favorite. I hope that you and yours will join me as I savor these last few weeks of summer, the warm days and cool nights, and the best of summer flavors as we look forward to the cool days of fall and the upcoming holidays that define the year’s end.

Rustic Vegetable Gratin

This recipe is one that outlines a simple process and allows for flexibility within the context of ingredients. Please feel free to use any or all the following suggested ingredients that you may have on hand, although I believe fresh tomatoes and onions are a must.

Ingredients:

Sun-ripened tomatoes

Zucchini

Summer Squash

Onions (White, Yellow, or Red)

Garlic (Rustic Chopped)

Fresh Seasonal Herbs (Parsley and Basil are particularly good)

A Good Quality Cheese or Two

Salt and Black Pepper

Method:

Slice all vegetable approximately a quarter inch in thickness.

Butter a baking dish and, starting with onions, alternate layers of vegetables with layers of cheese, and remember to season each layer with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs. Finish with a thick layer of cheese.

Bake covered in a 350-degree oven until a knife will easily slide through the layers, and then uncover and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the gratin is bubbling.

Allow to rest for approximately 20 minutes before serving.

This gratin, served with good wine and perhaps some fresh seasonal fruits, makes the perfect summer meal.

Corn and Tomato Salad

Ingredients:

6 Shucked Ears of Sweet Corn

¾ Cup Small Dice Red Onion

1 Cup Cherry Tomato’s Halves

¾ Cup Chiffonade (Thinly Sliced) Fresh Basil

Dressing:

½ Cup Cider Vinegar

½ Cup Olive Oil

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Black Peppers

Cook the corn until tender. Cool, and cut the kernels from the cob.

Toss the corn, tomatoes, onions, and basil.

Wisk the dressing ingredients together, and dress the salad 15 minutes prior to serving.

An Italian Way With Tomatoes

As the heat and humidity of summer settle over the landscape, the vivid red of sun-ripened tomatoes begins to peek out from among the green tangle of vines. And, in my opinion, the greatest season of the year is upon us. Tomatoes ripened by the summer sun are a gift, and one must do everything required to enjoy this short but prolific seasonal delicacy. In addition to enjoying fresh tomatoes in sandwiches, salads, and the all-American BLT, you can also capture this seasonal flavor through canning. It’s a way to preserve a small but glorious bit of summer’s essence after the season passes.

My tomato preservation and canning adventures from past years have included spaghetti sauce, whole peeled, and juice. This year, I was inspired to try a recipe that I found in Honey from A Weed, the culinary cult classic penned by Patience Gray during the middle years of the twentieth century. Ms. Gray, an Englishwoman, spent her life defining not only the path of women within the workforce and single motherhood, but also identifying and establishing many of today’s culinary trends, like seasonal cooking, fresh whole foods, and elements of the farm-to-table and slow food movements. This book recounts her life living and cooking in the Mediterranean, specifically Greece and the southern part of Italy. Patience not only weaves a wonderful story of her life and culinary experiences but also documents many simple and ancient recipes and techniques that support a close-to-the-earth lifestyle.

Home-made bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil, shared – with a flask of wine – between working people, can be more convivial than any feast.

Patience Gray

This old-world approach toward tomato preservation intrigued me, and I was not disappointed by the simple technique and the unbelievable results that it produced. Once again, quality ingredients combined with a simple approach and light hand within the context of the process results in a product that satisfies and contributes to the joy of living a good life.

I have outlined below my slight adaptation of the original recipe as recorded by Patience but believe the results will not disappoint.

Take ½ bushel of very ripe plum tomatoes. Wash them thoroughly in cool water, and place whole in a large stockpot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and cook until the tomatoes are soft; then cool.

When cool, process the cooked tomatoes to remove the seeds and skins; this will produce a rather thin, pulpy tomato puree. I use a commercially available tomato processing device, but a food mill or chinois could work just as well.

Clean and sterilize glass canning jars, and place into each a slice of onion and a sprig of garden-fresh basil. Bring the processed tomato puree to a boil, and ladle into your prepared canning jars, leaving appropriate headspace. Wipe clean the rim to assure a good seal.

Process the filled and capped jars to the specification required of your canning approach—either water bath or pressure canner. Many online and print resources are available to aid you with processing times for both methods.

This ½ bushel of plum tomatoes produces approximately 6 quarts of a very fine quality tomato product that will become a pantry staple and the basis for many a delightful sauce, soup, or casserole.

When the warm, sunny days of summer fade into the cool days of fall and dismal days of winter, you can open your pantry door for a little reminder of the summer past, its goodness, and the promise of spring to come.

Cherry Pudding or Clafoutis???

A slightly cool summer morning recently found me in the garden at Cow Hill Cottage checking on the progress of the forthcoming bean crop as well as keeping the weeds at bay. The quality of the light and sounds and aromas that surrounded me transported me back to my childhood and memories of my maternal grandmother “Nan” as she was known to her grandchildren.

A talented farm wife, mother, and cook, Nan’s home was always open to welcome one and all, and her kitchen was never found to be bare of some delicious offering. This particular summer morning my thoughts were drawn to memories of Nan’s Cherry Pudding made with ripe sour cherries and served with milk and sugar, which was my grandfather’s approach to most desserts, including fruit-filled Jell-O, if you can believe it.

Nan’s Cherry Pudding recipe was passed down through her family—the Kellys—hailing from the Walnut, Nook, and Half Moon areas of Juniata County. Although I have found that the tradition of Cherry Pudding and other fruit-filled puddings to be commonplace within Central Pennsylvania, my real surprise is the origin of the recipe—a French recipe—that I came upon while researching desserts for my original restaurant some years ago.

The simple recipe that follows is a part of the food tradition of the former Limousin region of France. Known for its rich farming history and a variety of oak harvested from its bucolic forests that is used to make barrels for the aging of brandy, Limousin is located in the south-central area of France, and its Clafoutis (Kla-foo-TEE) has been a classic dessert of the region for hundreds of years.

Purist insist that a true Clafoutis is made from only cherries—and un-pitted ones at that—as they believe the pits impart an improved cherry flavor throughout the dessert. The dessert is traditionally served warm with a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar over the top as the pudding is removed from the oven. Although similar desserts are made with other fresh summer fruits, the proud people of Limousin would consider these non-cherry varieties to be a Flaugnarde (a baked French dessert resembling a large pancake) and not a true Clafoutis.

No matter what you call it, or if you subscribe to the pitted or un-pitted cherries, I believe you will agree that it is a perfect summer dessert and one of the many pleasures in a simple life well lived.

I have shared two recipes below for your enjoyment. The first is my family’s Cherry Pudding, and the second is a traditional Clafoutis. Please feel free to add to this culinary story with your comments and observations.

Cherry Pudding

Ingredients:

2 Large Eggs

1 Cup Sugar

1 Tablespoon Melted Shortening

1 Cup Milk

3 Cups Flour

1 Teaspoon Baking Soda

1 Quart Pitted Sour Cherries or Other Fruit of Your Choice

Soften butter to grease the baking dish.

Method:

Mix all ingredients and pour into a well-greased baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes until a cake tester inserted into the pudding comes out clean.

Serve with powdered sugar or sugar and milk.

Clafoutis

Ingredients:

1 Pound of Cherries

½ Cup Sugar

1 Cup Flour

4 Tablespoons Butter, melted

1 Pinch Salt

3 Eggs

1 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Butter (to grease the pan)

3 Tablespoons Sugar (for the garnish)

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Remove the cherry stems.

Grease a round 10-inch pan with butter and arrange the cherries.


In a bowl, cream the sugar and eggs. Then add the flour and salt. Stir in melted butter. Then pour the milk and stir to obtain a light and smooth dough. Pour the mixture over the cherries.


Bake the Clafoutis for 40 minutes.

Sprinkle with sugar as you take the Clafoutis out of the oven.

Serve warm or cold.

The Reedsville Creamery Shakes Up the Local Milk Market

Today, I spent some time talking with Loren Kauffman, a neighbor who has recently introduced a new business to our community. The Reedsville Creamery has been a dream of Loren’s for some time, and over the past year or so, he and his family have completed the legwork required to begin pasteurizing and processing whole milk products at his family farm. You can buy white, chocolate, and strawberry flavors from local retailers, markets, and grocery stores throughout Central Pennsylvania as well as right on the farm at the farm store.

Loren’s raw milk comes from his father’s herd of cattle located approximately 50 feet from the creamery’s processing facility resulting in a quality and freshness that is hard to reproduce by other suppliers. His micro-processing facility bottles approximately 300 gallons of milk per day in old-fashioned returnable and sustainable glass pint, quart, and half gallon bottles.

The creamery’s milk is pasteurized, but is not homogenized, resulting in a heavy layer of cream that floats in the neck of each bottle, providing a blast from the past for those of a certain maturity and a great new experience for the less experienced. This layer of cream can be used for cooking, baking, or as the perfect coffee creamer. For those of you who are not interested in using the cream on its own, a simple shake of the bottle before each pour will result in a superior product that I would wager is better than any milk you have ever tasted.

Loren shared with me that the federal regulatory process to assure quality and purity of product is stringent, requiring a daily, weekly, and quarterly inspection process. He finds the regulatory aspect to be less intimidating than his early expectations. In fact, he believes the process, as well as the advice that the inspection personnel have provided throughout the development and start-up period, has been very valuable and has assisted Loren with providing an enhanced product to his customers and one that he is very proud of.

The Reedsville Creamery has plans for growth and product expansion to include ice cream, 2% milk, skim milk, and heavy cream. My favorite part of Loren’s expansion dream is to take his distribution into other regional communities using a nontraditional approach to business growth that will focus on the development of micro-processing facilities within each region, thus maintaining a local perspective and the use of local raw milk.

I have begun to use Reedsville Creamery milk not only at Cow Hill Cottage but also at Stonefly Café http://stoneflycafe.com. My staff appreciates the high quality of the product, and I am inspired by Loren’s dream of quality local dairy products that have previously been unavailable to me even though I live within a farming community with a rich history of dairy farming.

I hope that with Reedsville Creamery’s and other local food purveyor’s success, others will follow, and a diverse and robust local food community will develop in support of a simple life well lived.

Did you know?

Whole milk has only 3.5% milk fat, making it 96.5% fat-free.

A cow produces an average of 6.3 gallons of milk daily, which is 2, 300 gallons each year, and 350,000 glasses of milk in a lifetime.

The greatest amount of milk produced in one year was 59,298 pounds by a Holstein cow named Robthom Sue Paddy.

Rhubarb—Rooted in History, Sweetened with Sugar

This past week I spent a good amount of time traveling the byways of Central Pennsylvania as I enjoyed a week of vacation in pursuit of one of my many interests—fly fishing.

I fished a few days in the northern tier of the Commonwealth on the Pine Creek and its tributaries, Slate Run, Little Pine, and Cedar Run. During the latter part of the week, Scott Bubb, the Winemaker at Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and I whiled away the warm spring days fishing the famous Penns Creek.

Throughout my travels to and from various fishing locations, I could not but notice the proliferation of rhubarb tucked at the edge of almost every garden that I passed. In fact, I would venture to guess that rhubarb may be one of the most popular garden plants in Pennsylvania. I myself have a large plot of it in the corner of the kitchen garden at Cow Hill Cottage.

Rhubarb has a storied history. It’s an actual lesson in human history itself within the context of mythology, natural healing, and culinary culture. First documented as a medicinal plant in China as early as 2700 BC with the root used as a laxative, it traveled via the silk road into Europe and eventually to the British Isles. Also, one cannot exclude from this discussion the view of the early Persian Culture that the human race itself sprung from the lowly rhubarb seed.

From a culinary point of view, rhubarb has a long tradition of being the basis for many a sweet dish, with Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Stewed Rhubarb being two of the most common. But from an Eastern European point of view, it was often paired with meats and other savory dishes. In fact, the tradition of its use in sweet desserts is so ingrained in the American culture that the United States changed rhubarb’s classification from a vegetable to a fruit in the late 1940s.

At Stonefly Café, we feature local rhubarb as a unique wine produced by Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and it’s the basis for our Rhubarb House Churned Ice Cream and Rhubarb Cream Brulé.

For those of you who want to add this storied perennial to your garden, I give you the following basic cultivation and harvest tips:

What to plant. Choose a variety that suits your climate. Ask a knowledgeable person at your local garden center or greenhouse for the best local varieties. Or, follow the long-held tradition of sharing planting materials, and ask a neighbor or fellow gardener to allow you to have a start from their plot.

When to plant. You can plant rhubarb crowns in early spring or in the fall when the roots are dormant.

Where to plant. Rhubarb grows best in climates where the ground freezes during the winter. It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Allow adequate room when planting as rhubarb plants can measure up to 4 feet wide and tall.

How to plant. Prepare a large hole, about the size of a bushel basket, and fill almost to the top with rich compost or rotted manure. Place the crown in the center and cover with 1 to 2 inches of manure and compost. Mulch with 2 inches thick of straw, compost, or shredded bark.

How to maintain. Give the plants lots of water, as this is key to producing tender stalks. Apply a generous layer of manure around the plants annually to assure a bountiful harvest, and maintain a good mulch around the base. Dig and split the rhubarb roots every five or so years while the plants are dormant in early spring or fall.

How to harvest. Give rhubarb one growing season to establish, and then begin harvesting in the second year. Once the stalks are 12 to 18 inches long, cut at the base. Leave at least half the stalks on the plant each time so they continue to add growth. The typical harvest period is 8 to 10 weeks from April through June.

My favorite rhubarb cake recipe follows, along with several tempting toppings. What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe?

Rhubarb Cake

Cake:

2 tsp Soft Butter

1 Cup Sugar

1 Egg

2 Cup Flour

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Baking Soda

½ tsp Salt

1 Cup Buttermilk

2 Cup Rough Chop Rhubarb

Streusel Topping:

¼ Cup Flour

¼  Cup Sugar

2 tbsp Melted Butter

Vanilla Sauce:

½ Cup Butter

¾ Cup Sugar

½ Cup Evaporated Milk

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Method, Cake:
Cream Butter and Sugar

Beat in the Egg

Add remainder of dry cake ingredients

Add the Buttermilk

Fold in the chopped Rhubarb

Fill a well-greased 9-inch square cake pan.

Method, Streusel:
Combine streusel topping ingredients and sprinkle over cake batter in pan.


Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes.

Method, Vanilla Sauce:
Combine the Butter, Sugar, and Evaporated Milk and bring to a boil, cooking and stirring 2 to 3 minutes until thick.

Remove from heat and stir in the Vanilla Extract.

Serve cake with Vanilla Sauce on the side.