Rhubarb and Mom

Rhubarb and vanilla
Spring rhubarb, still on its way out of the ground.

What’s the best thing about spring?

I know, everything.  But if you focus, bring it down to the details and ignore radishes, then it’s got to be rhubarb.  And one rhubarb plant (which over the years becomes two, then three, then…) will supply enough rhubarb for a family of three, plus the neighbors. My rhubarb plant is living proof of this.

I always make rhubarb cake to celebrate the first of the season. And this year, I’ve been making rhubarb poached in vanilla syrup, over and over again because it is SO DELICIOUS.  I like to serve it over fromage blanc, which is simply fresh cheese.  It works as a sauce for fish or chicken, and it works really well just all by itself right off the spoon.

rhubarb and vanilla
Diced rhubarb poaching

It’s very easy to make, though you need some good music to get you through the dicing.  As is my predilection, I turn to Paul Simon, whose elegant tones are ideal for dicing.  (I saw him in concert last year and unfortunately wasn’t able to tell him this, but I hope to someday…!)

In any case, there is just one slight argument when it comes to rhubarb, and I just had it with my 97-year-old mother and eminence grise in the kitchen.  I was making her a rhubarb tart, and I began to peel the rhubarb which was  tough of skin.  “My mother would NEVER have peeled the rhubarb,” she said from her chair where she sat, watching.  “In fact she may be turning in her grave at this moment.”

Mom and me
My mother and me….still in love after peeling rhubarb

Now, as anyone who is a mother or who has a mother knows, such proclamations are welcome on a scale from 0 to …0.  But given that my mother is the brightest bulb in any lamp in the room, and that her memory of the distant past sharpens by the day, and that she is still one of the finest cooks I know, I stopped to consider. My grandmother – my mother’s mother – was my first cooking teacher.  Her food rests in my memory as the most flavorful I’ve tasted, from her lamb shanks and turnip greens to her oxtail and hominy creations, not to mention her cornbread, her cookies, her winter soups rife with tender barley.  My mother’s cooking, too, was an inspiration.  A slave to variety, she rarely cooked the same dish twice so that when it came time to gather family recipes together, we had about three that we remembered eating more than once.

Back to rhubarb. I stood in my mother’s kitchen peeling rhubarb, with her eagle eyes watching me.  Fortunately, I could redeem my actions (once a daughter, always a daughter) by pointing out to her how tough the skin was.  She was simply curious, and said that she would probably peel her rhubarb the next time.  At 97, she is still learning.

So, this has ended up being a blog post about my amazing mother, and rhubarb.  Fitting.

Here is the recipe for Rhubarb Poached in Vanilla Syrup with Fromage Blanc.  If you can’t find fromage blanc, you can drain Greek Yogurt and use that, or large curd cottage cheese that you’ve whipped smooth.  Or vanilla ice cream, or simply by itself from the spoon.

Rhubarb and vanilla
Rhubarb Poached in Vanilla Syrup

Here is the recipe for Rhubarb Poached in Vanilla Syrup over Fromage Blanc! Bon Appétit!

rhubarb fromage blanc
Poached Rhubarb over Fresh Cheese
Prep Time
20 mins
Cook Time
3 mins
Total Time
23 mins
Poaching rhubarb in vanilla syrup is one of life’s simple pleasures. But never tell anyone how easy it is, because they will thing you slaved all day over it. True, it takes some time to cut the rhubarb into tiny dice. Put some Paul Simon on and let his music take you somewhere while you – carefully because your knife is sharp – dice. Then, put the rhubarb into the syrup. The only trick is cooking time. If you see that some of your rhubarb pieces begin to fray, remove the pan from the heat. The rhubarb will cook in the residual heat of the syrup, which is why the cooking time is so approximate. As for the fresh cheese: use fromage blanc if you can find it. If you cannot, drain Greek yogurt for an hour or two, then use it in place of fromage blanc. You’ll need to measure the yogurt AFTER it has drained, so get 2 cups (500ml). ASTUCE: to peel or not to peel rhubarb, that is THE question. I peel tough stalks that are a second or third harvest from a plant. Small, first harvest rhubarb doesn’t need to be peeled. If the skin is very tough – and it can be so tough a knife will hardly go through it – peel the stalks. It’s easy to do – the peel doesn’t much like what is underneath it so it comes away easily and quickly!
Servings: 4 servings
  • 1-1/4 cups; 250g vanilla sugar
  • ½ vanilla bean seeds removed
  • 3/4 cup; 65ml filtered or bottled water
  • 1-1/2 pounds fresh rhubarb peeled and cut into small dice (about 1/4-inch square), .75kg
  • 1-1/2 cups; 375-430g to 1-3/4 fresh cheese or drained yogurt
  • Fresh mint basil, or tarragon leaves – for garnish
  1. Mix the sugar, the vanilla bean and seeds, and the water together in a large saucepan and bring slowly to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil gently, stirring often, until all the sugar dissolves. Fold the rhubarb into the boiling syrup. It will seem as though there is too much rhubarb for the amount of syrup, but continue folding it gently as it cooks, and you will see that the rhubarb will decrease in volume as it cooks and releases liquid into the syrup.
  2. Cook the rhubarb just until it is tender, which will take 8 to 10 minutes, folding it almost
  3. constantly until there is enough liquid so the rhubarb is fully covered, and checking frequently to be sure it doesn’t cook too long. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
  4. To serve, divide the fromage blanc or yogurt among 6 dessert bowls. Pour equal amounts of rhubarb syrup over the yogurt. Garnish each bowl with an herb leaf, and serve immediately.


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