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HOME ON THE RANGE: Taking the barb out of rhubarb

The other day, my boyfriend Delano lugged home five very imposing stalks of rhubarb, each the approximate size and weight of a crow bar. He splayed them on the table, a dare. I’ve personally never seen the charm in rhubarb. It’s 10 times more sour than any lemon and the leaves are actually poisonous! However, I didn’t hurl the bitter limbs out the window. Rhubarb is in season, after all, in a place where what’s in season matters. When blackberries ripen, you bake pies. When the salmon run, you grab your pole and fish. Now that rhubarb is sprouting around sheds and gazebos and outhouses from Deception Pass to Cultus Bay, by golly it’s time to get busy concocting “best evers,” “surprises,” and “delights.”

My abiding inspiration for this endeavor was Delano’s grandmother Phyllis. She’s a crafty woman with a stylish bob haircut who enjoys a good joke with her evening wine. If she spots you in the corner clandestinely straightening your underwear, she’ll call out, “Are you going to the movies?” When you offer a puzzled response, she’ll zing you with, “Because I saw you picking your seat.” Phyllis’s cooking leans on the traditions of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when nuclear families enjoyed rich sauces, fondues and French’s fried onions. She creates dishes lavished with cheese, cream, and fully-fatted meats, that is to say dishes that taste really, really good. Rhubarb delight is one of her signature creations.

I was lucky enough get a try of this aptly-named Delight on a weekend visit to Delano’s family cabin on the Hood Canal. After the scones and fried eggs and sausage patties and fresh crab and steamed clams and grilled oysters and ham loaf and Indonesian rice casserole, Phyllis whipped out a cake pan brimming with neon pink baked rhubarb. It was the very dish her grandkids had begged for ever since they were in diapers. I gobbled a healthy serving, covered by a thick blanket of whipped topping. It was gooey, sweet, sour, perfectly junkalicious — the kind of treat you consider absconding with and finishing in the dark, all on your own. I was happy to learn how simple it is to make. Add a little Jell-O. Pour on a bit of cake mix. Presto, you’ve got it.

Since I had so much rhubarb, however — certainly more than a round of Rhubarb Delight could absorb — I had to track down another recipe, another sweet, crusty mix in which to drown the remaining tangy stalks. I winnowed a couple of likely suspects from one of those three-ring, photo-copied cookbooks created by the good parents of grade-school children. These are my favorite cookbooks because they contain only time-honored, precious, passed-down-from-generation-to-generation recipes. Give me the sincere efforts of the Lake Country School over some dumb Time/Life collection any day.

I selected Best Ever Rhubarb because the name sounded so confident. It took three steps to make the stuff — crust, custard, meringue — but, aside from separating six eggs, these were three pretty easy steps. The Best Ever came out deliciously. Not necessarily the best ever, but close. The custard and the rhubarb melded into a creamy and nicely tart filling. The meringue browned to a lovely toasted pink color, adding height and majesty. One thing, though: Once the dish cooled, the crust tended to stick to the bottom of the pan. Really, I had to stab at it with a sharp-edged spatula (the lengths I will go to … ). Perhaps a super-light layer of Pam is in order before pressing in the crust mixture.

Phyllis’s

Rhubarb Delight

6 cups chopped rhubarb

2/3-cup sugar

1 package strawberry Jell-O, dry

One box yellow cake mix, dry

1 cup warm water

1/2-cup melted butter

Layer the rhubarb into the bottom of a 9- x 13-inch pan. Sprinkle the dry Jell-O mix over the rhubarb. On top of that, evenly pour an entire box of dry yellow cake mix. I know this sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good. Carefully dribble the warm water over the top, followed by the 1/2-cup of melted butter. Bake according to cake mix directions, usually at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

Best Ever Rhubarb

Crust:

3/4-cup butter

1 1/2-cups flour

3/4-cup brown sugar

In a small bowl, combine the butter, flour, and sugar. Mix well. Then press the mixture into the bottom of a 13- x 9-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

Filling:

6 egg yolks

2 cups sugar

6 tablespoons flour

1/4-teaspoon salt

1 cup half and half

1 teaspoon vanilla

6 cups chopped rhubarb

For the filling, combine all the ingredients except the rhubarb. Mix well. Spread the rhubarb over the crust. Then pour the filling over the rhubarb. Bake this at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until the filling has a custard consistency. Remove from the oven.

Meringue:

6 egg whites

1/4-teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup sugar

coconut (optional)

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining ingredients except the coconut. Spoon the topping onto the baked rhubarb, as evenly as possible. Make some nice swirls if you like. Sprinkle this with the coconut. Return to the oven for a few minutes until the topping is lightly browned.

Jennifer Vogel brings a fresh perspective to island cooking as she has only recently taken up serious cooking.Readers should enjoy relating to her successes and failures. Send recipes or suggestions to vogel@

whidbey.net

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