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.

Dandelion Greens with Sweet & Sour Bacon Dressing

Spring continues to march forward at Cow Hill Cottage, and the gardening chore list grows each day. I find myself lingering later and later in the garden not only to meet the demands of the season but because of the warm sun and attractions of spring. The lilacs are in bloom and their aroma, as well as their visual show, discourage any thoughts of me leaving my garden chores early.

While preparing seed beds, I found a nice stand of dandelions within the wood chip paths between the raised beds. These common plants, considered by most to be the scourge of the well-manicured lawn, are both a curse and a blessing. As a weed, they are difficult to eradicate, but from a culinary point of view, they are a key ingredient in both the food culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch as well as the traditional European peasant.

Weeds have been a part of the peasant’s diet for hundreds of years, providing sustenance during lean times and a basis for tonics and medications. Within the context of the local Pennsylvania Dutch culture, the consumption of this bitter herb has always been associated with the celebration of Holy Week and Easter as well as a tonic for spring fever.  

When I was young, one was often encouraged to make sure you had eaten your dandelion as, without it, spring fever would prevail. We were reminded, with much amusement, that spring fever was a result of all the iron in your body turning to lead and being deposited in your behind.

This spring, I have managed to enjoy this culinary tradition twice and believe I have both prevented spring fever and lightened my step a bit.

Wild greens like dandelion are often served with a Sweet and Sour Bacon Dressing, with hard boiled eggs, chopped spring onion, and sometimes fresh garden radishes. In my family, we prepare the Sweet and Sour Bacon Dressing more as a gravy to be served over boiled potatoes that often serves as a side dish to fried country ham. Both are delicious, and I encourage you to experience both.

As to the foraging of the greens, please gather them in an area that has not been treated with chemicals of any type, and be sure to wash the collected greens multiple times in fresh water to assure all grit and dirt have been purged. Manually inspect your crop, discarding any stems or other debris.

I have often heard that the greens become increasingly bitter as they grow larger, and the production of the familiar yellow flower is rumored to increase this bitterness as well. I myself do not find this to be the case, but when considering the salad version, I would think that the younger greens would be preferred over the tougher, more mature ones.

I’m providing my recipe for this simple country dish and hope that you find it as delicious as I do. Also, I believe I will sleep better tonight knowing that I have done my part in helping you to keep spring fever at bay and the lead from your behind.

Render on low heat ½ lb. of medium-diced smoked bacon until the bacon is just beginning to become crisp. I find a cast iron fry pan and a very low and slow approach is the secret to this part of the recipe.

When the bacon has crisped, sprinkle five to six tablespoons of flour over the bacon and stir into the rendered bacon fat to make a smooth roux, cooking for a few minutes to assure no raw flour taste remains.

Add together ½ cup cider vinegar, ½ cup of sugar, 2 beaten egg yolks, and 1 cup of water, and mix well. Add this mix to the bacon and roux in the fry pan over medium heat, stirring well until thickened.

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Add approximately 2 cups of the clean dandelion greens to the pan, turning the heat off so that the greens wilt slightly.

Pour over hot boiled potatoes and serve with a thick slice of fried ham of your choice. I myself prefer a smoked country-style sugar-cured ham.

If you have a variation of this recipe or some fond memories about eating wild greens, I’d love to hear from you.

Some Thoughts on Soup and A Basic Ham and Bean Soup Recipe

My love of soup goes much deeper than just a great meal. I firmly believe that soup is the foundation of a creative and productive kitchen and involves a process that can satisfy a peasant’s soul, especially when shared with family, friends, and neighbors.

First, soup is the ultimate convenience food. With little effort or investment of time, one can prepare the basic ingredients before a long, slow cook at the back of the stove as you go about your busy day, and when complete, soup can be served for both lunch and dinner throughout the upcoming week or frozen for later use.

Second, soups are versatile, as they provide for both a well-received course as part of a dinner party menu or as the star of the show for a simple rustic supper by the fireside with some great bread, cheese, and wine.

Third, soup is the ultimate waste-reduction tool within the creative cook’s repertoire. Drippings and leftover meats from a roast, vegetables that will be past their prime in a few days, or odds and ends of pastas, grains, and other bits found in a well-stocked pantry are the building blocks of not only a great soup but an economically managed kitchen as well.

Last, I also hold out that soup may perhaps be the answer to the question of hunger throughout this country and the world. Soup has always been the birthright of the proud peasant. When economic condition or time of famine did not allow for grand culinary endeavors, soup was the basis for simple sustenance. It is economical in cost and simple in technique, and little in the way of equipment is required to produce a delicious and nutritious meal that will not only sustain but provide the very best the season, the kitchen, and life has to offer.

Here you will find a very simple Ham and Bean Soup recipe, one that I enjoy myself quite often. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Ingredients:

2–3 Smoked Ham Hocks (If ham hocks are unavailable, any smoked pork product, like ham end, trotters, etc., will do.)

2 Large Yellow Onions, chopped, and 1 Whole Yellow Onion, cut in half and unpeeled

1 Stalk Celery, chopped, and 2 Whole Celery Ribs

4 Carrots, peeled and chopped, as well as 1 Whole Carrot, unpeeled

Dried or canned Beans of your choice

Black Pepper

Dried or Fresh Bay Leaf

Dried or Fresh Oregano

Dried or Fresh Basil

Dried or Fresh Thyme

Whole Peppercorns

Method:

The Broth:

Place the ham hocks, whole onion (cut in half), 2 celery ribs (cut in half), whole carrot (broken in half), a few peppercorns, and the bay leaf into a stock or soup pot and cover with water. Yes, I have suggested that you do not peel the carrot or the onion as I believe that this adds additional flavor to the broth. In support of this step, I recently completed a Master Class by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame and found that she adds unpeeled carrots, onions, garlic, etc., to her broth as well; thus, I can only believe that great minds must think alike, and I can assure you that I have not lost my mind.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook for one and a half to two hours until the broth has become very dark and the meat is falling off the bone.

Strain, and reserve both the broth and the ham hocks while discarding the peppercorn and bay leaf. Allow the ham hocks to cool and remove meat from the bone and chop into bite-size pieces.

The Final Soup Assembly:

In your stock or soup pot, sauté the chopped vegetables in a little olive oil until just soft and slightly translucent. Add the chopped meat and either dried beans that have been soaked in water overnight or canned beans to the pot. I prefer great northern beans myself, but please feel free to add your favorite bean of choice. Add the ham hock broth to the pot. Taste the broth, and if too strong in flavor, dilute with some water to your taste. Add the remaining spices I have suggested within the ingredient list but feel free to add your favorite herbs and spices as well.

Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the soup for at least two hours or longer to allow the flavors to develop.

Don’t forget to add a few homemade croutons as a garnish. To make the croutons, toss a few roughly chopped pieces of bread with some olive oil, salt, black pepper, dried oregano, and dried basil and place on a sheet pan in a single layer and bake in a very hot oven (400–450 f) until brown and crisp.

Raw Milk Adventure

The sale of raw milk directly from the farm has become fairly common over the past few years. During my travels this week, I noticed a new addition to our local community with the availability of raw (unpasteurized/non-processed) milk from Hameau Farm located on State Route 655 between Reedsville and Belleville, Pennsylvania.

Gay Rodgers, the resident farmer, has had her eye on retailing raw milk for some time and beginning about a year ago, she initiated a project to have her farm and its herd of Ayrshire cattle certified, thus allowing this dream to become a reality.

I stopped by to find out a little more about Gay’s journey and to look at her operation. The first thing I noticed about Gay is that she is passionate about farming, Ayrshire cattle, and grass-based milk production.

DSCF0042

Within a few minutes of our visit, we were deep into a discussion about what was required to become certified to sell raw milk from the farm and the layers of regulation in place to assure a healthy and safe supply of this great product to the public. Although some would think that the regulations and non-stop inspections and lab testing may dampen the drive to bring this product to the table, I found this information compelling in support of my decision to use raw milk in my culinary activities from this point forward and, without any doubt, this is a safe and healthy product.

DSCF0044

In addition to the food-safety aspect, Gay also shared with me her philosophy of a grass-based diet for her herd and how this relationship between the grass and the particularities of the Ayrshire breed provides for high levels of both butterfat and protein. Also, the way the fat is formed within Ayrshire milk allows for an increased level of ease within the transformation process of Ayrshire milk into butter, yogurt, and cheese over other dairy breeds. Because raw milk is not processed, many of you who suffer from dairy intolerance may be able to utilize this product as the pasteurization process eliminates the lactate from the milk leaving only the lactose thus eliminating an important relationship between the two that allows for enhanced digestion.

I found through our discussion that Gay and I have similar thoughts as to how our food is grown, harvested, processed, and marketed to the public. We both support a commonsense approach to this process that embraces both artisanal, commercial, and hybrid agricultural activities to feed the world’s population.

DSCF0050

Raw milk is available at Hameau Farm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and is retailed straight from the milk house. Please remember to bring your container as Gay, at present, is not able to provide for this level of service. The good news is that soon she will have available glass containers that you, the customer, can purchase and bring with you each time you visit the farm to have refilled just like a growler at your local brewery.

DSCF0052Without a doubt, my visit to Hameau Farm and the time I spent with Gay Rodgers warmed my spirit and gave me the inspiration I required to get through this cold and blustery early March day.

Trip to the Bakehouse

In search of a life well lived, what could be more wholesome than fresh-baked bread from a wood-fired oven. I set off early this morning for McBurney Manor in McAlevy’s Fort in Huntingdon County. Nancy, the proprietor of McBurney Manor Bed & Breakfast, bakes all of our bread for Stonefly Cafe in Reedsville.

The sun was just breaking through the remaining storm clouds, and the light danced over the ice-covered landscape. Mist rose from the valleys and clung to the ridges, crags, and mountaintops creating an almost Black Forest–like setting.

I arrived at the bakehouse to find a peaceful early morning scene. As I swung open the door, I was met with the smell of yeast and wood smoke. Nancy had laid a fire early yesterday morning in the ancient brick oven and had tended it throughout the day as the storm grew, piling ice and snow across the countryside. In the fading light of that evening, Nancy began the process of loading bread and rolls onto the brick hearth, working into the small hours of the morning.

DSCF0037

The bakehouse was warm and cozy as the old oven continues to radiate heat throughout the day. I took a few minutes to admire Nancy’s work, finding breads, rolls, and par-baked pizza crusts lined on shelves awaiting those who know about this special place to stop by and pick up their daily bread. I paid for my order that was awaiting me and placed my check into the antique china vegetable tureen that is used as a cash register as this is occasionally an “on your honor” retail establishment.

DSCF0033

The warmth from the bakehouse—and the aroma of bread—stayed with me long after. May God bless the craftsmen, artisans, and purveyors that maintain these traditional ways of life, providing a diversity of product and choice to those of us who understand the joys of how real food tastes.

If you have the chance to travel through McAlevy’s Fort, Pennsylvania, and the Hearth-Baked Bread Sign is out, stop by and help maintain one of these special places.