The Roots

Sunday, May 11, 2014

   I've mentioned here before that I associate many people in my life with certain foods. For my grandma, that food is rhubarb.

   My grandma was many, many things but the first I think of when she comes to mind is the amazing, patient gardener she was. She had a knack for coaxing things to grow in abundance, for knowing what the earth needed to be just the right environment for flowers, vegetables and fruits. She wasn't afraid of the deep, dark winters of the northeast that could last far longer than winter has any business lasting. She simply planted things that could survive the cold and come back with sweet vigor in the spring. She canned and jarred things like tomatoes and other vegetables to enjoy during the colder months- most especially, she made jars upon jars of rhubarb jam.

    Rhubarb grows well in the north and, although a vegetable, the sweet, deep red stalks often are prepared like fruit, such as in jams and pies. Grandma's rhubarb jam is one of my favorite childhood memories. I just loved the ruby hued, gooey sweet luxury of that stuff spread all over a salty cracker: eaten slowly, chops licked, repeated as many times as my little heart desired. I imagine all vegetables that masquerade as fruit balance the world of sweet and tart as masterfully as rhubarb does.

 Grandma kept her rhubarb patch in the same place since as long ago as I can remember- and my earliest memories of the rhubarb garden were probably from when I was about four. Last week, hours after her funeral, I walked with my parents and sister to that patch of garden and there the rhubarb was in the exact spot that I remembered- fledgling, spring sprouts struggling to the surface, already their leaves a vibrant green. We unearthed small pieces of the tuberous plant, divided them amongst ourselves and took them home with us. Grandma's rhubarb is now happily growing not only in her backyard, but in my sister's and mom's in the midwest, and here in mine in the deep south, the stalks just beginning to blush pink.

   I'm celebrating my own mother this mother's day; she's one of my closest friends, the person I often turn to for advice, comfort and, of course, just good fun. Mom taught me and my siblings how to forge our own paths- she decided to homeschool us even though she knew no one who was doing such a thing and nearly all her friends and relatives told her she was crazy. She raised five kids and after all of that decided to go to medical school and become a family physician. Mom has always sent the message that nothing is impossible; if you can imagine it, you can make it so. I'm thankful she's my mum every day, but especially this day.

   And, I'm celebrating the life of my dad's mom. Grandma appreciated nature, family and good food made right in her own kitchen. She taught me how to properly soak french toast and was totally unfazed by how picky an eater I was- hence her knack for getting me hooked on things like rhubarb. I'd like to think she would enjoy this crumble- it's certainly not her jam, but it comes close.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble
Serves 8 to 10, generously

For the filling:
6 cups rhubarb, cut in half lengthwise then chopped into 1/2 inch chunks (greens and dried ends discarded)
4 cups strawberries (whole, quartered or sliced- it is your preference)
Zest of half a lemon
Juice of half a lemon
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons butter

For the topping:
2 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces), cut into 1 tablespoon sized pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 13 x 9 inch baking dish.

Make the filling: mix all the ingredients except for the butter together in a mixing bowl. Place the filling in the prepared baking dish, smoothing it out. Use your fingers to pinch small pieces of the butter and place them over the top of the filling.

Make the topping: place 1 cup of the oats in a food processor and process until very fine. Add the butter, salt, brown sugar and vanilla extract and process until incorporated. Place this mixture in a bowl and use your hands to knead and smush in the remaining 1 1/2 cups oats. Sprinkle this evenly over your filling. Cover the whole thing with tin foil.

Bake for 30 minutes, covered with the foil. Remove the foil and bake for 40 minutes more until the filling is tender and bubbling and the topping is golden brown.

Serve warm with generous scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.


  1. So very blessed to have my Sweet Pea Natalie creating such a feast for my eyes, belly and brain. Thank you sweetie. I love you so much!

    1. I love you too :) I hope next year we can cook together for mother's day!