Plenty of ways to cook rhubarb

Lilacs and rhubarb have nothing in common except they are both ready for picking at the same time.

On one sunny day earlier this year, I went out to my rhubarb patch, pulled several stalks and then cut lots of lilacs to take indoors with the rhubarb.

Rhubarb was a staple in every early Canadian garden because it is hardy to our cold winters. It needs lots of sunshine and watering only if it hasn’t rained for a while.

When picking rhubarb, pull it out from the root to get that pink, shell-like end. If you cut off the stems and leave that funny end on the plant, it won’t grow more stalks to replace the ones you took. The poor thing will grow smaller and smaller. So don’t be gentle — yank away.

It’s also important to remember that the leaves are poisonous so don’t feed them to birds or animals. They won’t hurt plants, though, so cut off the leaves and the other end and throw them in your compost. (The leaves also make fabulous stepping stones but I’m not going down that road today.)

I take a knife out with me to do this cutting outside, spending as much time as possible outdoors and reducing the chance of bringing in insects that may be hiding on the leaves.

There are lots of dessert recipes to make with rhubarb but the favourite in my family is my mother’s rhubarb relish. Sweet and tangy, I like it the most on roast beef but other family members will ask for it on other meats.

Jean Paré has a rhubarb relish recipe in her Company’s Coming Preserves book, in which she recommends using it on hot dogs and hamburgers. Your taste buds may prefer it on some other meat. Experimenting is allowed.

Jean Paré’s recipe uses all the same ingredients as my mother’s with only slight variations on amounts.

I like to store my relish in nice jars and give it away as Christmas gifts. If you don’t seal it in sterilized jars, keep it in the fridge. Because it’s like any other pickle, it will last a long time.

Here we go with my mother’s recipe.

  • 4 c. chopped rhubarb
  • 2 c. chopped onion
  • 2 c. vinegar
  • 4 c. packed brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. cloves

In a large saucepan, mix the rhubarb, onion and vinegar and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. There is a tendency for the solids to sink to the bottom so lots of stirring is needed throughout all the cooking. Cook uncovered 20 minutes while stirring.

Add all the remaining ingredients, stirring often. Your kitchen will fill with a lovely spicy aroma. People will ask, “what’s cooking?” and you can reply, “Mother’s Rhubarb Relish.” I’m guessing everyone will smile. Keep stirring.

Cook until thick, about another 30 minutes. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal.

This recipe makes five cups.

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