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A New (Favorite) Thing: Rhubarb

[In the kitchen, Sebastopol, May 2012.]

The fall after I graduated college I went to hear a lecture by Isabel Allende, who was speaking to a packed crowd at a book signing in downtown DC. The summer before, on my first trip to Greece, I’d picked up “Daughter of Fortune” at a little Athens English bookstore two floors above a dirty side street and read it during my various train trips as I criss-crossed Europe. I’d come to her late — the first time I tried to read “The House of the Spirits” I didn’t like it, but on the second attempt I fell in completely and read it in a few days — but once I did, she became a staple.

One of the things that most struck me when listening to her that afternoon, in addition to all of the writing-talk, was that she said wrote her mother a letter a day. A letter a day. A letter a day! She also said she had her mother read all her first drafts of her novels and they would write back and forth about them; Allende said she was terrified of her mother growing older, because at some point she wouldn’t be there to read her work and give her the feedback she so valued (besides the obvious other things, of course). I loved the idea of this, and thought that if I ever got my act together to pursue a [fiction/more full-time] writing life, I might like to do the same (some day …).

Allende surely is not the first writer to have such a close relationship with her mother — the poet Edna St. Vincent Millary wrote to her mother, Cora, when she was concerned about her health: “I think about you all the time in the daytime, and lately I dream about you at night. There is nothing in all the world I love so much as you.” The two kept a close relationship — fraught, at times, with the usual drama that crops up between mothers and daughters — throughout their lives.

I am thinking of mothers, and daughters, and writing, and family today, of course, because mother’s day comes this weekend in the States and I just spent the last weekend with my own mother celebrating early. We brunched at the Willow wood in Graton (thanks to Ruby J for the lovely, hand-picked flowers), tried to keep cool in the unexpected – but welcome – heat, and I cooked dinner. It was comprised of simple things, but those she likes best: roasted chicken (yes, turning the oven to 450 F when it was 80 degrees outside was a bit tough but I persevered), roasted asparagus, green beans, mashed potatoes, cake.

I also baked a strawberry-rhubarb crumble for my dad, mostly because I have never (!) cooked with rhubarb before and decided it was time to give it a try. If this winter was the Winter of Kale, this spring I think shall be the Spring of Rhubarb. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I have never been a big rhubarb fan because hello, rhubarb! How delightful you are! His crumble turned out fantastically (recipe soon), but what I couldn’t stop exclaiming over was the small pot of rhubarb compote I cooked when my mom mentioned her grandmother used to make it. She said she remembered eating it, just straight from a bowl, when she was a kid – so of course I had to make a batch.

I washed and chopped the rhubarb and cooked it with a bit of honey and brown sugar and lemon juice – the easiest. I piled it generously atop my slice of cake but I could imagine eating this just as-is – like my mom once did – because it’s so good. I hope to gather armfuls of rhubarb this weekend so I can compote/can to hoard for the rhubarb-less months ahead; it’s a very “catch while you can” fruit (vegetable?) and vanishes when its time in the spring (and early summer) sun is up. This compote is sweet-tart (but not too sweet, as is my inclination) in the best way and I love how the rhubarb, uncomplicated by strawberries, tastes just like itself. Hard to describe exactly what that is so I suggest you try it for yourself.

If Oscar Wilde, in The Importance of Being Earnest, claimed cynically that “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his,” I would argue that sometimes it’s not so bad to be like your mother — especially when she’s the kind of person who makes your favorite pesto-chard lasagna and vegetable soup when you’re under the weather, sends you interesting articles in the mail, and fills your fridge with delicious homemade goodies when you’ve been out of town.

So in honor of the yearly holiday to celebrate the ones who created us, I give thanks for my mom: my first editor, biggest fan, gardener of flowers, and favorite person with whom to go shopping. She can throw a mean dinner party and go root for the Giants with me, all in the same weekend. We annoy my brother in exactly the same way (by asking too many questions and unnecessary fussing), which strangely comforts. We both like to take care of , and we might stay up reading later than we ‘should’ because the book is impossible to put down. We’re both powerless in the face of an endearing cat and feel the same way about Yosemite. She bakes me cupcakes just because, and never fails to read any of my stories, whether or not they’re any good. Thanks, mum. And thanks for letting me take all the rhubarb compote home with me.

Make this right now, when rhubarb is – hopefully – available everywhere. Serve it with cake – might I suggest a busy-day cake? Or a lemon pound cake. Or an angel food. There are endless possibilities. – or spoon atop vanilla ice cream or swirl into Greek yogurt. And make it next year for Mother’s Day, too.


Rhubarb Compote
I will note that this is a fairly loose recipe, mostly because I firmly believe that we all have different ‘sweet tastes’ and while rhubarb certainly is quite sour when eaten on its own – which is why no one does – I also don’t think it needs to be overly inundated with loads of sugar. I talked to my sister-in-law Emily as I chopped the rhubarb and when I expressed uncertainty about how much sugar to include, she reminded me that it’s good to start conservatively with not-too-much and then taste and add more as necessary. I used a mix of honey and brown sugar here, and I love the mellow sweetness the honey imparts. Of course, add more or less sugar/sweetness to appeal to your own taste.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

About 4 rhubarb stalks, leaves removed, washed and coarsely chopped lengthwise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
scant 1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a heavy bottom saucepan, toss the rhubarb with the lemon juice, honey, brown sugar and vanilla. Bring to a slow boil and stir, making sure the honey and sugar dissolves. Lower the heat and simmer for about 7 minutes. Taste occasionally and add a bit more sugar if you wish. Remove from heat and cool.




  1. I have rhubarb growing in my backyard, here in Richmond, CA. I never liked rhubarb as a kid, but really want to try making this.

    Would it be possible to make it without the sugar but with org. agave nectar?

    Thank You!

  2. How delicious. I grew up with rhubarb in New England, and was sad I missed the season here last year. I have a bunch in my fridge right now, and I’ve been using it to make a ginger rhubarb syrup that makes a delicious (and delightfully pink!) drink when cut with seltzer. When I was very small the rhubarb in our back yard seemed taller than I was! My mom would give us a stalk of rhubarb and a little cup of sugar, and my sister and I would sit out on our back porch and dip the stalk of rhubarb in the sugar and eat it raw. Sweet and tart and perfectly summery.

  3. Just made a batch with my rhubarb from my CSA. I had all green stalks so its not as pretty of a color but tastes delicious.

  4. Okay, I’ve got this cooking on my stove as I write this, and I’ve got a question: I assume when you say, “make sure the honey and syrup dissolves,” that the syrup you are referring to is the syrup created by the cooking ingredients and not that there is some form of “syrup” that should be in there that is not listed in the recipe? Just checking!

  5. Oh, thank you! I am a great lover of rhubarb — usually making crumbles or pies — and getting ready to go out and cut my first stalks from my garden. We shall have compote before the day is done!

  6. I just had my first rhubarb compote of the year on top of waffles (two thumbs up), and Greek yogurt is a favorite combo. It freezes well, too. Both the compote and chopped up stalks.

    Rhubarb needs a colder winter than N. Calif to be happy, which is probably why you don’t see as much of it down there. Up here it’s a sure sign of spring at the market, and the crazy pink (HOT PINK) shoots coming up from dark soil in March/Feb are a reminder that all hope is not lost; brighter days are on their way.

    Your mother sounds lovely, which is no surprise to me at all. xox

  7. i cant wait to try this- it looks/sounds so good. a little scared cos ive never made any kind of compote before and this seems too easy- but im going to try!

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