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Rhubarb Reflections

We had a rhubarb plant when I was a kid. It was tucked somewhere in the side yard, between the big vegetable garden and the lanky-limbed pine tree. When we weren’t climbing that tree, my brother, Jeff and I liked to perform ritual vegetable sacrifices.

Upstate New York is a wet place, and the garden always had some rain-swollen zucchini or pumpkins in it. We’d carefully haul the bloated things out of the garden—they were as fragile as water balloons—and into the road, then dart back behind the pine tree and wait. Eventually a Buick Skyhawk or some other, vaguely sporty 80s-mobile would speed by, leaving an explosion of gourd entrails in its wake. Hilarious! The height of entertainment for under-10 suburbanites!

We never touched that rhubarb plant though. My father made it very clear to us that the rhubarb leaves were poisonous. Don’t eat the rhubarb leaves! They could kill you! So naturally, we didn’t go near the thing, and found other creative ways to spend our time.

Like running into the street with rotten vegetables.

So when rhubarb comes around each year, I’m reminded not to eat the leaves, but to enjoy their slender stalks. You may see them in red or green, which indicates varietal differences rather than ripeness.

I’m a sucker for desserts that feature this veggie (yes, it’s a vegetable), and this recipe for Rhubarb Custard Cake from Bon Appetit’s Claire Saffitz was a cinch to make on a recent cool late-spring evening. The rich batter crisps up nicely around the edges, so you could almost confuse it with a pie, as my husband did. It also makes a perfect foil to rhubarb’s tang. To ensure your stalks tuck neatly into your pan, get out a ruler to make precise cuts. But, be sure to leave the rhubarb in large pieces as instructed so they remain buoyant as the cake bakes.

Anyone out there have any fond rhubarb memories or recipes? I’d love to hear about them!

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