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Christa Lawler column: Looking beyond rhubarb crisps and pies

At last weekend's CHUM Rhubarb Fest at First Lutheran Church, you could get, of course, the classics and a few more obscure treats: rhubarb pie and rhubarb crisps. Rhubarb jam, rhubarb lemonade, rhubarb scones and upside-down cake. The rhubarb sno-cones seemed popular.

The burritos had rhubarb salsa; the rhubarb brats had pieces of the perennial mixed in with the meat — and optional rhubarb relish that was a must-add.

The Whole Foods Co-op's strawbarby smoothies were intriguing on multiple levels: a strawberry-rhubarb smoothie mixed in a blender that was pedal-powered.

This is all just to say that the rhubarb patch in the backyard is giving me the fantods. Through no effort of my own, year after year, we get a healthy crop of free food. It requires nothing more than slipping into a pair of flip-flops and traveling, like, 40 paces and tugging a stalk from the ground.

It barely makes a dent. The rest of the leaves absorb the blank space. A little rhubarb goes a long way. This plant is like a to-do list that is impossible to complete.

I'm so from-the-land curious. It started with Nyanyika Banda, who — in her pre-Martha's Daughter restaurant days — had a pop-up trailer at the Farmer's Market. A favorite: egg sandwich with ramp pesto, harvested from actual dirt by her friends. (By the way, this is still on the menu at her brick-and-mortar shop on East Superior St., she said.)

Then there was Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley's "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," which served as a call to imagine all the things I could bake, boil and gnaw raw.

("Don't mind me, neighbor, just using your tree to make cedar-braised beans.")

What if we could eat all of the rhubarb.

For the past few years, I've made a point of going off-the-beaten-'barb-path, with varying degrees of success. Rhubarb is tricky. Its taste is such, a pucker that things can go really, really wrong — if not taste-wise, aesthetically. I'm not even sure how Crayola would describe by raw vegan gluten free strawberry-rhubarb tart. My rhubarb vinaigrette found its way to the back of the refrigerator and only resurfaced months? years? later during a mega-clean.

A friend from work said her rhubarb chutney, made to accompany pork, was an "icky-brownish green ... it was revolting" and another friend, a professional chef, used the same descriptor for her canned rhubarb compote.

"I thought it would work for pork," she, too, misgaged. "When, in fact, it would only work as sink deodorizer. Lesson learned."

The best recipe I've made is a lemon shortcake-style cookie with rhubarb chunks. I've also juiced it, the satisfaction of just decimating a bunch of chunks in one sitting. I've also turned it into smoothies. Crisps, of course. Probably a pie or two. Rhubarb shrub.

We boiled it down into not-so simple rhubarb syrup. Every year I make a nostalgia trip to the good old stalk-dipped-in-sugar, a rite of summer snacking from when I was a kid.

Our next-door neighbor snagged a handful of stalks to make his famous sauce, which he uses like cranberries alongside his turkey.

When I solicited my network for punk rock rhubarb recipes, my best friend sent a picture of the vodka she's infusing with chunks of strawberry and rhubarb. She drinks it with soda water, or mixes it with Moscow Mule fixings — ginger beer and lime juice. It works in a gin and tonic, too, the profession chef added. Not to mention rhubarb rum dark and stormies, another friend chimed in.

A baking enthusiast has sliced it into thin pieces, dipped it in simple syrup, then dehydrated it to make candied rhubarb.

On one friend's to-do list: rhubarb kvass — a Russian fruit and rye bread fermented drink.

The rhubarb wine recipe, a friend said, is still being tweaked — but at this point not-so bad with ginger ale.

Next up for this rhubarbian: rhubarb kimchi. What could possibly go wrong.

Zesty rhubarb cookies

30 minutes, makes 2 dozen

Zest and juice from 1 lemon

1½ cups rhubarb

1 egg

1 tbsp baking powder

½ cup brown sugar

2 cups flour

½ cup sugar

¾ cup butter

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter, brown sugar, sugar. Add egg and mix.

In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. Mix dry and wet ingredients together, then stir in rhubarb, lemon zest and lemon juice. Put heaping spoonfuls of dough 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheets. Bake 12-15 minutes until cookies start to brown. Put on a wire rack to cool.

Adapted from recipe by www.Picklebums.com.

Rhubarb sauce

20 minutes

6 cups rhubarb

1½ cups sugar

3 orange slices

Mix ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and let it simmer. Serve over ice cream or with turkey.

Rhubarb shrub

50 minutes, makes 2 cups

2 lbs diced rhubarb

1 cup sugar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

Mix rhubarb, apple cider vinegar and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stir. When it boils, reduce to low and cook until the rhubarb is broken down, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain through a colander. Store syrup in a jar and let it cool. Refrigerate. Pour a dash of shrub into an ice-filled glass and top it with seltzer water (or alcohol). Stir.

Candied rhubarb

Rhubarb

Simple syrup

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Slice rhubarb into thin pieces and dip in simple syrup. Bake until strips look crisp, about 1 hour. Let cool for about 10 minutes.

Nostalgia stalk

0 minutes, makes 1 snack

1 stalk of rhubarb

Sugar for dipping

Wet leafless rhubarb stalk, dip in sugar, chew.

Share your ideas

What are you doing with rhubarb? Send your clever rhubarb recipes to features@duluthnews.com. Crisps and pies need not apply.

Christa Lawler is a features reporter and columnist for the News Tribune. Her writing recently was awarded first place by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. Write to her at clawler@duluthnews.com.

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