Oh spring – wherefore art thou? Where do we tell our children you have gone on these overcast, rainy days? Will you even come at all this year, or will a stubborn winter melt right into summer? I know spring in Maine is all about mud season, always so sluggish and so fleeting, but this is more than we bargained for. Last year, our first in Maine, spring came effortlessly and early, after a pleasant and mild winter. So we entered this season with false hope.
For me, it’s not really spring until the pink rhubarb stalks arise, bursting forth with their manes of green leaves. In Oregon this time of year, the rhubarb is always bigger and brighter, fatter and redder, and, of course, earlier. In my garden there, rhubarb poked up through the mulch in mid-February. It’s a taunt to see my Oregon friends’ blog and Facebook posts about enjoying local rhubarb – and asparagus – for over a week now. Here in Maine, Goranson Farm in Dresden says they won’t have rhubarb at the Bath Farmers’ Market for another two weeks. And asparagus, sadly, is still a month out. What to do? At least the morels and dandelions are out.
This long, cold spring is also thwarting plans to plant outside. Farmers seem a bit depressed that they’re already two-plus weeks behind schedule. Kids – and their parents – are sick with the flu and sore – maybe strep? – throats. Flu in late April? Theo and I had feverish head-colds this weekend, but fortunately his father, away for a conference at Colby College, was spared. We still consoled ourselves with our weekly trip to the Brunswick Farmers’ Market – the final indoor one in Fort Andross – hoping in vain to find rhubarb there. Instead, Theo and I later trudged to Hannaford for rhubarb from who knows where, the final straw on that wet, 45-degree Saturday in almost May. I don’t remember ever buying supermarket rhubarb in my life, since patches thrive in so many backyard gardens and farms. But I had this recipe to test, never mind Theo’s constant demands for watermelon. (At least I was able to snatch up some of those velvety, superior Ataulfo mangoes, now in peak season at your grocery store.)
I had almost forgotten that Maine, not Oregon, is where I first learned to love the pie plant veg, the true harbinger of spring. As a girl, I loved the barely-sweet, homemade rhubarb sauce my grandmother Winnie McCandlish spread on toast and stirred into yogurt when we visited her at her rustic camp on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes. She made the annual drive from Florida into her 80s, stopping just a few years before she died, 25 years a widow, in 2010. Now that I think of it, she introduced me to much of what I’ve so come to admire about life here. When in Maine, Grandma composted, canned raspberry jam, curried cucumber pickles, picked wild blueberries for muffins and bought local tomatoes, green beans and squash from her neighbor’s makeshift farm stand.
I also thank Maine for introducing me to strawberry-rhubarb pie, now our family’s favorite early-summer dessert, topped with a scoop of Gifford’s ice cream. I’m almost as happy with plain rhubarb pie. In recent years, we’ve also fallen for blueberry-rhubarb pie (also a great combination for jam) as well as bumbleberry, a wondrous mélange of apple, rhubarb, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry and blueberry (or even cranberry). Two Fat Cats in Portland makes delicious renditions of all these pies.
But I must confess that I bake few pies at home. I’m more a strawberry-rhubarb crisp kind of gal. Crisps, fortified with oats, flax and nuts, are my go-to easy fruit dessert. Or if I’m feeling ambitious, maybe a free-form galette like we made with last June’s perfect strawberries and some fibrous, forgotten rhubarb we gathered from a farm’s border.
If you’ve never cooked rhubarb before, start somewhere even simpler. Whip up an instant applesauce-like compote, as my Grandma would in minutes. My mother, once intimidated by the celery-like stalks, now loves to macerate about 2 cups of cut rhubarb in about a half-a-cup of sugar, simmering it in its juice over a low heat. For breakfast, we stir rhubarb sauce into Winter Hill farmstead yogurt from Freeport, spread it on buttered, crusty toast from Zu Bakery at the Brunswick market and stir it into oatmeal. Much easier than pie.
Can you eat rhubarb raw? Yes, only those dark green leaves are toxic. Kids get a thrill biting into a crunchy, astringent raw rhubarb stalk – first dipped in sugar, of course. Theo and I will try some out in the backyard this summer, if our too-shaded patch ever produces. I’m also eager to make raw chutneys and again try crisp rhubarb floating in a sweet Earl Grey tea and cardamom-infused broth, a brilliant technique I gleaned from a 2007 New York Times Magazine piece.
But first, we’re all craving a spring tonic, a bright balm to our depleted spirits. Look no further than rhubarb simple syrup. I have Oregon to thank for this tangy nectar, a boon to farm-to-table families everywhere. Straining the juice-syrup yields that added gift of compote. Then, remember the three pops: rhubarb syrup Popsicles and naturally sweetened rhubarb soda pop for the kids. After that, pop open some bubbly for rhubarb-Champagne cocktails for frazzled parents. Rhubarb also mixes well with gin, vodka, even tequila. What could be better for Cinco de Mayo than a rhubarb margarita, mixed up at the ever steadfast El Camino here in Brunswick? (Since little local rhubarb is yet available this year, ask friends for bags of last season’s rhubarb chunks hiding in the bottom of their freezers, or substitute equally tart and magenta dried hibiscus flowers, used in Jamaica, the Mexican agua fresca.) We just might have to drink ourselves to summer.
Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. You can reach her through her blog BaltimOregon.com, and follow her on Twitter @BaltimOregon.