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Family’s Rhubarb Mousse Connects Generations

Posted on: February 17, 2016
Rhubarb makes a dramatic and tastey addition to designer pal Adriana Berry's garden.

Rhubarb makes a dramatic and tasty addition to designer pal Adriana Berry’s garden. Photo by Carol Lindsay

I found this story about rhubarb and a family’s history in my vacation house kitchen cupboard.  It was left behind by friends using the house.  I enjoyed reading it and learned it’s a part of a series written by Chrissy Lavielle to pass down her family’s recipes and their history.  She generously allowed me to share it with you.

I really like rhubarb.  It’s big and dramatic; it looks tropical, but survives sub zero winters and anything else you can throw at it; and you can eat it – it’s the only fruit that’s not a fruit.  My rhubarb plant flowered last summer.  A two-inch diameter club shaped stalk shot up six feet and exploded in a mass of tiny greenish white flowers.  The effect was prehistoric and vaguely ominous.  I watched it carefully, ready with my trusty loppers, in case it got out of hand.

Both my mother and Craig’s mother grew rhubarb.  Craig remembers pretending the leaves were clothes and I remember using the leaves and stalks for everything from flags to parasols.  Mothers now days would never allow this, they know that the leaves are toxic – chock full of oxalic acid.  I guess maybe mom told me not to eat the leaves, because I never did.  Or maybe she didn’t.  Why would you eat a boring green leaf when you could bite into a bright red stalk?  That eye watering, tooth roughening, mouth shriveling bitter sourness is a childhood memory of Cincinnati summers that is hardwired into my brain.

Every February my mother began to look forward to the “spring tonics” – stewed rhubarb and dandelion greens from the golf course.  I wasn’t fond of either one.  Her philosophy on fruits and vegetables was to cook them until they were really, really dead.

Red stocks are the tasty part, the leaves are toxic and bitter.

Red stocks are the tasty part, the leaves are toxic and bitter.

My mother in law’s recipe is a much better way to enjoy rhubarb.  I helped her make it once, and smiled to myself as I watched her cut the rhubarb.  Holding the stalk over the saucepan with her left hand, and the paring knife curled in the fingers of her right hand, she put her thumb on the opposite side of the stalk and cut against it.  Pieces of rhubarb fell into the pan in a quick series of metallic plops.  This is exactly and precisely the way my mother, another Ohio girl who lived through WWII and The Depression, cut up rhubarb.  Neither one of them had any use for a cutting board and to my knowledge, only used one occasionally – usually for cheese.

Mother planted her rhubarb at one end of the asparagus bed.  In the years after she died, the rest of the garden gradually faded away, but the rhubarb plants outlived both my parents.

Rhubarb mousse is one of Craig’s favorite deserts.  He also likes rhubarb pie or pan’d outy – but he is dead set against adulterating it with strawberries or blueberries.

Rhubarb Mousse

1 lb. rhubarb cut in 1″ pieces (3 cups) or 1 pkg.

1/2 cup water, divided

1 cup sugar

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

2 tsps. lemon juice

1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Red food coloring

Cook rhubarb with 1/4 cup water until it strings.

Soften gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water.  Stir into hot rhubarb until dissolved.  Remove from heat.  Add lemon juice and chill until mixture mounds when dropped from spoon.  Fold into whipped cream and mold.

For more information about growing rhubarb see my favorite garden guru’s article, “Grow Strawberries Tasty Companion: Rhubarb” by Vern Nelson at The Oregonian web site.

Rhubarb at market

Buy rhubarb at a farmer’s market and ask them what variety it is and why they grow it.

His favorites are ‘Chipman’s Canada Red’  which is nearly identical to ‘Crimson Cherry’.  ‘Victoria’ is not as sweet but is a vigorous  “do gooder” plant.

My guest blogger Chrissy got her plant from her mother, and many people get a plant from a neighbor.  There’s nothing wrong with this method but if it were me looking for a new plant I would go with Vern’s suggestions.