Rhubarb: The Preamble to Spring

I have a problem. I keep trying to put away my winter coat. Yet somehow I am always defeated.

It seems every time I try, some (aptly named) freak Arctic weather pattern comes roaring through and I am left pulling my furry-hooded coat from storage once more.

On one such day, I found myself slogging into a grocery store through the slush, feeling gray and uninspired, when I caught a flash of shiny crimson out of the corner of my eye. I whipped my cart around to investigate. As I wheeled closer, I felt relief. It was a sign. It was rhubarb.

Here in the mid-Atlantic and other places across the country, winter has gone on so long it is impossible not to suffer from root vegetable fatigue. Symptoms include longing for fresh, crispy lettuces, leeks, artichokes, onset of spring fever, and itching for opening day at the farmers’ market.

Rhubarb’s appearance at the grocery store meant that spring was in fact still coming and soon fresh produce will follow. It was the promise of an end to the blah routine of brown things on a plate next to off-white things covered in brown sauce. Rhubarb, I decided, was coming home with me now.

A vegetable belonging to the buckwheat family, rhubarb is a crop we see typically in stores or at the market in spring. Only its stalks are edible. The leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid, rendering them poisonous. Rhubarb has a tart taste, verging on bitter. It can be polarizing. Its mention brings either wide-eyed anticipation or the scrunched face of repulsion. Why would anyone eat this? When cooked and combined with sugar, it yields a multidimensional, bright flavor. I combined rhubarb with its oft-paired friend, the strawberry, and buttermilk for an ice cream sandwich that is the ultimate preamble to spring.

Photo of strawberries and rhubarb.

Photograph by Jasmine Wiggins

Strawberry Rhubarb Buttermilk Ice Cream

1 pint strawberries
2 stalks rhubarb
⅓ cup organic raw sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 

1. Wash strawberries, trim the tops, and cut into quarters. Wash rhubarb. Trim ends. Cut into ½ inch pieces. Combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, and ¼ c water in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for 10-12 minutes or until the mixture has thickened, and rhubarb has broken down. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh lemon juice. Pour half of the mixture into a bowl. Purée the remaining half of the mixture in a blender. Add to bowl. Refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Photo of ice cream base.

Photograph by Jasmine Wiggins

Ice Cream Base

4 large organic egg yolks
½ cup organic raw sugar
1 ½ cups organic heavy cream
½ cup organic whole milk
1 cup organic cultured buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

Whisk together the egg yolks, and half the sugar (¼cup) in a metal or glass bowl.

Stir together the heavy cream, whole milk, and remaining sugar (¼cup) in a saucepan over medium heat until mixture reaches a simmer. Remove from heat.

While whisking constantly, slowly pour about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the yolks. Once incorporated, return the egg and cream mixture to the saucepan and turn heat to medium-low. Continue to cook the mixture, stirring constantly until thickened. This takes about 1-2 minutes. You’ll know when it is ready when the mixture coats the back of your spoon.

Pour the base through a strainer into a clean bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight. I highly recommend overnight.

When the mixture has completely chilled, whisk in the buttermilk and vanilla.

Put into an ice cream maker and let churn. When finished churning, transfer mixture to a 9 x 9–inch Pyrex dish, layering with the rhubarb puree.

Press a sheet of wax paper onto the top (to prevent ice crystals) and freeze overnight.

Photo of graham crackers homemade.

Photograph by Jasmine Wiggins

Graham Crackers

These, cookies have a crisp, cracker-like texture with the flavor of a gingersnap. They are delicious with or without ice cream.

1.5 cups graham flour*
¾ cup all purpose flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons granulated sugar for dusting (optional)

*Note: Graham flour can be a challenge to find. I have used whole-wheat flour with similar results.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add ½ c brown sugar and ½ c granulated sugar.

In a separate bowl, stir together the wet ingredients: butter, honey, milk, and vanilla.

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the center. Stir to combine. The mixture may be crumbly. If it’s not coming together, knead lightly with your hands.

Divide dough in half. Shape each into a flattened rectangle. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Roll one half of the chilled dough out on a floured work surface until ⅛”-inch thick. Cut into rectangles using a sharp knife or a pastry cutter. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkle with sugar, and bake for about 15 minutes, or until dark golden brown. You may need more or less time depending on thickness.

Transfer cookies to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

Assembly

Remove ice cream from freezer. Cut into rectangles the same size as your graham crackers. Sandwich the ice cream between two crackers and enjoy immediately, or return to freezer until ready to serve.

These are best eaten within a couple hours, or the cookies will become soggy. But hey, maybe that’s your thing.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.

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