rhubarb Rhubarb

I first set eyes on rhubarb in my Toronto childhood backyard. I didn’t know it was edible but did notice its big, fat, leafy presence.   

My mom, an avid gardener, ignored it. Her passions skewed to flowers. We often shared a loving look at her peonies or roses together, but chives were as far as she’d go in the green department.  

Writing about and researching fruits and veggies most of my life, I’ve always been a little dubious of the childhood rhubarb recollections relayed to me by friends. They always shake their greying heads with revelatory passion, recounting how they had dipped freshly grown rhubarb into a jar of sugar.  All this, standing alone in the middle of a vegetable patch at the age of five or six.  Uh, huh? I tried this sugar dip trick recently and couldn’t spit the rhubarb out fast enough. 

Let’s be real folks, rhubarb is one sour mofo. Don’t get me wrong. I can embrace sour but with rhubarb, it’s always begs for more sugar than the rest of the gang.

On the plus side, I adore growing this so-called fruit that’s actually a vegetable. A perennial, rhubarb really grows itself.  It’s the first to poke through the soil in early spring, starting with little red bumps and furled, neon green leaves that stretch out dramatically into a monster of a bush in a few weeks. Rhubarb grown in greenhouses is usually pinker (and deceptively sweeter-looking)  than my garden’s red-green, tannic stalks. 

Alas, the colour of a rhubarb stalk has nothing to do with ripeness.   

This veggie calls out in its pretend, fruit voice for our sweetest of attentions.  It loves to be buffeted in a blanket of sugar, butter and carbs. That’s all it wants.  Maybe you’ll want it too if you give in to the sweetness rhubarb demands.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

Crisps are a simple, easy dessert for fruit-filled success that are just as good — if not better — for breakfast the following day. Einkorn and oats are a match made in whole grain heaven.  There’s a reason strawberries and rhubarb pair so well. They are seasonal sisters in the garden and sugary strawberries help abate all that rhubarb pucker.

2 1/2 cups sliced strawberries

2 1/2 cups rhubarb, diced into 1/2 inch cubes

1/2 cup white sugar

1 Tbsp corn starch 

2 tbsp blanched almond slivers, toasted

3/4 cup whole einkorn 

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/4 tsp salt 

1 stick cold unsalted butter, diced

1 cup oatmeal

In a round 8-cup ceramic or glass dish, toss strawberries and rhubarb chunks with white sugar and corn starch.

In a food processor bowl, blitz toasted almonds, einkorn, brown sugar, cardamom and salt with a few pulses in the food processor.  Add butter cubes and pulse until they are pea-sized morsels. Combine with oatmeal and layer over the fruit. 

Bake in 375 F oven for 40-45 min or until top is golden brown and fruit is bubbling beneath.

 

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Lavender Plum Jelly

The first time I laid eyes on these plums, the trees were groaning with them. It was  August,  the day we took possession of our Vancouver Island  home in 2016. While David, his brother Norm and sister-in-law Cheryl stood in the courtyard surveying the exterior of the house,  I trotted down the driveway to find out what was green and growing on our 2.5 acres.

Huge rhododendron bushes and plum trees lined the driveway. Shiny red plums, no bigger than marbles, glinted in the sun. None were nearby, but all shone like Christmas ornaments far from reach in the tall,  skinny trees. 

A huge black raven flew over, each flap of its massive wings vibrating overhead. My eyes fell on saffron-painted plums poking out from leafy branches nearby. They were tiny little wonders no bigger than the cherry tomatoes growing in my downtown Toronto containers. Each orangey-yellow orb was splashed with traces of red. Warm to touch in the hot August sun, I picked one and popped it in my mouth, smiling wide.  It had a sweet, pulpy juiciness.

A search ensued! In three minutes, my makeshift t-shirt pouch bulged with a colourful, but slightly moist and sticky bounty.  Juice was trickling out from the overripe, split ones that came in every hungry handful I snatched away from the tree.

With no room for more to carry, I snacked heavily, reducing my load by half as I came closer to another variety-in-waiting. Heavy green clusters of plums weighted down the branches bringing them closer to my reach.  Alas, these golf ball-size beauties were sour and hard:  Not ready for prime-time picking.  I spat out my pit and was surprised to watch it join dozens littered in the grass below, all fallen from the mouths of marauding deer.   

On another branch —  Hope. One once green had ripened to a deep yellow, beckoning. I was perched on rocks that lined the stone walkway down to the dry pond nearby. Teetering on one foot, then the next, I managed to shake the ripe branch and gather the sweet morsels that fell to the ground, avoiding those that fell upon a mound of shiny, black pellets.  Deer scat.

I returned to the house and found the others, tracing their voices echoing through the empty halls. None seemed as eager to sample my found fruit as I, but each nodded their head politely after a taste.

This was just the beginning. What food writer in her right mind isn’t obsessed with gathering sweet, ripe FREE fruit hanging from trees? It’s like finding money dangling from the leaves.   

On superhot summer BC days, when the thermometer slips over 30 and it’s crazy to get out of the shade or up from a lounge chair, I drag my husband out on a blackberry pick.  We wear PPE: Long pants, long sleeve shirts, boots and gloves. We dig out the lawn clippers and apple crates from the garage.  Then we cruise through the windy roads of Maple Bay and environs, searching for manna from the heavens. When we spot black swaths of untouched, unblemished, fat, ripe, abundant berries overhead we no longer cry in vain, thinking they’re unreachable. We simply laugh an arrogant chuckle, deeming ourselves seasoned professionals. David clips the clusters and I catch them in a waiting  apple crate beneath his arms. Once we’ve filled the crates, we aim to stop, but never can.  There’s always another ripe berry around the corner and a few empty plastic bags to hold them.   

Pounds upon pounds of ripe, sweet fruit cannot be consumed instantly. Berries are flash frozen on trays in single layers or tucked into a rustic tart or two. But plums, especially the ones in our orchard, are more troublesome. The pulp to pit ratio is about 50:50. I have cooked them in huge pots on the stovetop or roasted them in the oven, but afterwards, there are  still all those pits to contend with. A food mill can help the process but nothing works finer than my Mehu-Liisa 111 made in Finland.

This three-tiered stovetop pot is basically a small distiller or “steam juicer”. The bottom is filled with water heated to a boil on the stovetop, while the middle portion holds the juice which falls into this catchment area from the large steamer above holding quarts of picked fresh fruit on top.  Take off the stopper and hot clear juice empties out from the fitted plastic hose attachment. Last time I used my Mehu-Liisa 111  I packed it full with 14 pounds of fruit, turned on the heat and collected five liters of juice in under an hour. 

Sadly, plum juice is not a favourite beverage, but it makes beautiful jelly that I can slip into my suitcase and gift friends and family each time I fly back home to Toronto. That way, I can bring a taste of our BC orchard across the country and share the wealth because money found on trees is simply delish.

Herd Road Lavender Plum Jelly

  • Servings: 14 250 ml jars
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The golden hue of this yellow plum jelly is painted purple with the addition of lavender and whole blackberries. After canning, check all the jars for a tight seal. Makes 14 ½ 250 ml jars of jelly.

12 cups plum juice *
4 tbsp lemon juice
6 tsp Pomona’s Universal calcium water
2 tsp unsalted butter
4 cups refined sugar
9 tsp Pomona’s Universal pectin
½ cup dried lavender or lemon thyme
1 cup frozen blackberries

Sterilize jars.

In a large wide pot heat plum juice, lemon juice, calcium water and butter and bring to a rapid boil.

Combine sugar and pectin in a bowl, then add to juice once it is rapidly boiling. Stir mixture until it comes back to a full boil then take off the heat. Carefully remove foam.

Remove hot sterilized jars and arrange on counter. Put 2-3 frozen blackberries and ½ tsp lavender in each jar before filling with plum mixture leaving ¼ inch headspace and lidding fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water.

Remove from canner and listen for a satisfying pop as each lid seals. All the lavender and blackberries will have floated to the top. Wait a few hours for your jelly to gel and cool, then turn a jar upside down to test if the jelly has thickened enough to suspend solids in the middle of the jar. If so, leave upside down for 8 hrs or overnight.

*Substitute with apple or white grape juice

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Got juice

Three years ago, David and I became the proud owners of an apple orchard on Vancouver Island. It was August and ten, old trees stood before us in three, neat rows above a carpet of burnt, golden grass.  The hot, Cowichan Valley sun beat down on our Torontonian brows as we gazed up, knowing nothing, surveying our orchard’s branches.  

I pulled the closest apple off a tree and opened my mouth.

“What are you doing?” David asked, incredulous.

I bit off a big chunk and chewed, holding his gaze. I continued to chew, hoping that somehow the taste and texture would improve. 

But it didn’t.  

I spat it out and recognized the first unripe flavour of my new occupation.  Apple Orchard Aug 2016

Beside the orchard was a long, gravel driveway up to the house, guest house and barn. It was lined with plum trees, all of them heavy with yellow, orange and red plums each no bigger than a cherry tomato.  They hung like grape clusters and beckoned sampling. I started with a demure, meek sampling that turned into rapid gobbling followed by voracious hoarding. 

David’s watching eyes bugged. 

Each plum was sweet, juicy and too plentiful for the pouch I’d fashioned in my t-shirt, now fully stained and attracting a buzz of nearby wasps.   

David picking High RussetsDavid, my apple farming husband, is still incredulous three years later as he lugs 15 boxes full of apples into the back of the SUV. It’s our third annual harvest and the first to go to McBarley’s juice and fermentation facility in Duncan. It’s not even the fall and we have harvested and boxed all of Number Two and Three trees. (These round, red and green apples the size of a fist resemble McIntosh apples – but doesn’t every Ontarian call apples that?)   Classic Red No 2

Never before have we nabbed the apples from Two and Three before the ravens execute their robbery. But here on the West Coast, David and I often wait for the wildlife to inform us. Their radar goes off like a living, breathing Brix meter. This year, all it took was a murder in the orchard for me to get out there and taste our wares. 

“It’s really good,” I say to David, mouth full of apple. “Try it.”

“Sweet!” is his reply.

We’re both incredulous. 

The brown, dry grass below the trees is littered with scat. We argue over their provenance. Is it bear, deer, rabbit or the neighbor’s lab? We know elk don’t venture in these parts, but then again, we never know what can happen here.  Just a few months ago, six gargantuan black steer (set loose from a neighbouring field) sauntered past our windows at dawn, way before our caffeine had kicked in and we had the wherewithal to run outside and follow them.

But I digress.  The apple harvest.  With tall, old trees like ours, it has to happen with ladders, a tool David was thrilled to purchase at Adam’s Tool and Tarp in Duncan and load into his brother’s pickup.  He bought an eight and 10-foot pair, neither which is easy to lug across the orchard let alone manoeuvre around our tall, leafy apples trees with their outstretched, unruly boughs.  

“It must be stable,” said our arborist Gordon McKay in his thick Scottish brogue, as I climbed up the rungs one wet, bone-chilling March morning several years ago. It was the only piece of instruction he’d given me in the past half hour that had made total sense. 

Number 7 beauty shotMcKay had started with the buds, pointing out their difference, which I could not discern. 

Then he spoke about cutting angles, which I quickly confused.  

Finally, he spoke about “last year, this year and next year’s growth”, at which point I was terminally lost, yet climbing up an eight-foot ladder. 

Just clip and hope for the best, I told my shivering self, dressed in two layers of long underwear and holding Japanese cutting shears in my right hand. My tree mentor’s instructions had floated right over my baseball cap into that gleeful empty field I call my memory. Luckily, the arborist was nearby on the other ladder, up another tree, clipping away expertly at breakneck speed. I faked a good hour of pruning until I snuck away, sighting urgent bathroom needs. Both McKay and I knew – there and then – that I didn’t have what it took to prune, but I might have some talent in the harvesting department.

Fast forward to August 2019.  My baseball cap and pony tail are stuck in a branch and I can’t move my head. An inch. I’m up on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder.  All I can see is apple leaves, spider webs, branches and one fat, out-of-reach 2-pound honker of an apple. But if I move too far to the right or left, it will be suicide, by hanging. A professional (i.e. Lee Valley) apple harvester’s bag is slung across my chest. It probably weighs 15 lbs and despite weight-lifting at my Mill Bay Pilates classes, I know I’m a goner. So I do something unusual for me: I wait. I breath. I listen to the jungle call of a nearby Pileated Woodpecker and thank my lucky stars that I get to be an apple farmer stuck in a tree overlooking Herd Road lake.  

Harvest box 2&3David and I are killing this year’s harvest.  Four or five full apple boxes are at the base of Number 8, the only tree we sort of know the varietal name for, due to its rusty, russet skin. Because we’re professionals, we don’t pretend to know the true varietal names of any of our ten trees but we are carefully recording their appearance, taste and botanical behaviour like the untrained scientists that we are.   

One summer, we took samples from each of our ten trees to the BC Tree Testers at the Cobble Hill Fair. Despite the combined  wisdom of three experts riffling through onsite reference books, slicing, tasting and considering… they came up empty, sighting the more than 10,000 different apple varieties and their unfamiliarity with our mysterious ten. Thus, we can only be certain all ten trees are different varieties, likely planted around the time David and I were born. We fondly refer to our apple family as Tree One through Ten, a habit that seems scientific but at the same time, really appeals to my Chinese sensibilities.  

A perennial Food Mama, I cannot let the offspring of my offspring go to waste. Thus the harvest, the ladders, the collapsible boxes, the shears and bags all spring into action once the ravens descend on the orchard. They huddle like dark shadows at the base of our trees and diffuse in a tactical squad when we walk or drive by. Once I’ve pulled all the easy to reach apples from the low hanging branches and dump that first bag of hard red orbs into a box, the ravens have returned to the perimeters, invisible in the high branches of our pines and firs emitting an intermittent  “scaaaw”, a staccato, almost digital “blonk” or my favourite, a continuous stream of gurgling water. 

Timing is tricky. Really tricky.  Mother nature doesn’t give a hoot about any of the dates I’ve put into GoogleCal but booking an apple squeeze is imperative. We know our trees don’t all ripen at the same time. Rather, they ripen up the line from Number One (ready in mid-August) to Ten (done in early October). 

But it took us three years to learn to stagger one year’s harvest into three drop-offs at McBarley’s. 

Our newbie harvest of  ‘16 was crushed in Courtney, a 3-hour drive away. Pressing Matters have a $300,000 German-made mobile apple juice maker that travels across the island and even ferries to many of the Gulf Island apple farms during the season. Yet this year, it was grounded. 

“Why?” I asked, making my first apple farmer business call.

“Cause nobody has apples this year,” laughed the gruff farmer on the other end of the line. “You bring ‘em here and wait for us to juice them.”  

David and I were the fourth truck full of apples to pass through Pressing Matters farm gate early one October morning.  We unloaded, adding our harvest to a ramshackle sea of cardboard boxes filled with pockmarked apples of every size and variety. Apple Juice Boxes in SubaruMany hours later, we left with 5L boxes full of hot pasteurized juice packaged into vacuumed plastic bags. Just like boxed wine, this juice comes out of a tap and is shelf-stable for 6 months without refrigeration.   

Next year, Pressing Matters went mobile and we found them at a small farm in Cedar, an easier 45-minute drive away. The truck in the lineup ahead of us had three times as many apples as we did. 

A mobile pressing machine like this requires four or five to operate and at McBarley’s they run the unit outside in their parking lot. Customers like us just drop off our apples, watch them get weighed and sign up for pasteurized juice, hard cider, or both. 

It sounds simple but the rub is in the timing. Ask any farmer and she’ll tell you to check that almanac, or your horoscope or better still, the waxing moon to know best harvest times. Yet to run a facility like McBarley’s, it’s all about scheduled dropoffs and pickups  for hundreds of folks like us avec les pommes. We opted for a three-stage harvest this year hoping 2019 will translate into the sweetest juice and  best bubbly vintage, ever. 

I know Number One through Ten will drink to that. 

An ode to damson plums

Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam.  I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them.  I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.

There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.

We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something:  The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.

But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.

IMG_6115Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!)  All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.

“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.

It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone.  I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.

“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”

Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.

It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.

That, my dear readers, is little old me.

I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.

Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore.  Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.

Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.

It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade.  It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.

I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.

Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.

I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.

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Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times.  I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I  developed a brilliant sleight of hand.  I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it,  separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz.  of readied product in just under an hour.

I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.

Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.

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My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
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Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.

3 1/2 lbs pitted damson

5 cups granulated white sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.

Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min. 

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Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums

¼ granulated sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.

In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt.  Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.

In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.

Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.

Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Buttery Banana Bread

IMG_6129Oh, the trials and tribulations of banana storage! Buy a big bunch and they all reach the right eating ripeness at the same time. There’s that two-day “perfect banana” window, then black dots start to hit those yummy yellow specimens like a rash. Before you know it, you’ve got some sorry, black and withered bananas languishing in the fruit bowl. Continue reading “Buttery Banana Bread”

Red pucker power

It’s hard not to think of cranberries this time of year. Little red orbs that they are, cranberries are synonymous with the festive season. Rare is the turkey that’s served without glistening, ruby pools of cranberry sauce.

But there’s a little problem with these berries – they are pucker-up tart and not easy to eat straight. Yes, they mellow with a little cooking and indeed, become more palatable once sweetened, yet it’s the raw, nude cranberry that delivers the most health benefits.

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Continue reading “Red pucker power”