Monday, May 8, 2017

Rhubarb, Phyllis and the queen’s dessert

            Thirty-plus years ago when I moved to Colorado, my mini high-plains acreage came with three rhubarb plants.  Rhubarb fell somewhere between liver and homony in my less-than-fond childhood food memories, so the first six or seven summers I watched these plants go to seed and mowed them down when the leaves began to fade from neglect by fall.  It proved a forgiving plant, however, and returned each spring, green and lovely as ever.
             The waste of these plants, not really a fruit, but often considered one, continued until one fall when I attended a Phillips County Fair Queen lunch as part of my duties as a reporter for one of our county’s two community newspapers.  The fair queen that year happened to be Jodi Starkebaum, the granddaughter of Phyllis (Anderson) Starkebaum, a wonderful, gentle-speaking woman who went off to college, returned to the area, spent one year as a teacher then dedicated the remainder of her life to working beside her husband Loren on their farm and caring for her home and family.  While I do not know this for fact, I believe that Phyllis found bliss in her role as farm wife, mother, grandmother and friend to many.
            The dessert served with the fair queen lunch that day, a red-sauced concoction with a toasted crumb topping, sent my taste buds to subliminal paradise.  “What is this?”  I asked one of the attendants as she passed my chair re-filling glasses from a pitcher of iced tea.
            “I’m not sure,” she said, but agreed to find out, and a short time later I learned that it was called “Rhubarb Dessert,” a delicacy made by the queen’s grandmother.
            “This is rhubarb?”  I asked in astonishment, and suddenly mourned all of the rhubarb I wasted over the years.  I went directly to Phyllis, who agreed to send me the recipe, and I have been making it every since.
            My brother Phil found yet another use for my rhubarb that eventually made its mark on our county the fair.  One year Phil came to me asking for rhubarb to make wine.  Why not?  I thought and sent him out back with the cutting shears.  Phil made a five-gallon jug of this lovely clear, sweet liquid, bottled it and gave me two bottles.  I drank one, complimented him on a job well done and decided to hoard the other for a special occasion.   That special occasion never came and the second bottle remained in my cupboard when Phil died in 2001.  I could not bring myself to drink it.
            A few years later, however, I decided to enter it in our county fair’s winemaking contest in his name.  It won first place and “Best over all.”  The judges loved it.  So much so that they sent me home with the prize, a pair of gold-trimmed wine glasses, and an empty bottle.  I still imagine Phil smiling when his name in the list of winners printed in our local newspapers that year.  The wine glasses remain in my china hutch.  I may use them if I ever make rhubarb wine.
            I was reminded of Phyllis and her Rhubarb Dessert this past weekend when my friend Faye came for a visit.  Faye and I met as young girls, back when our dad’s hung out at the old North Sante Fe beer joint in Salina, Kansas.  Out of respect for her and the possibility that she does not want her age reported over the Internet, I won’t say how long ago that was, but suffice to say we have known each other many years and have been friends for nearly all of those years.
            Since the rhubarb was ready for picking, I suggested that we put up some Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam.  Faye, always open to a new adventure, agreed.  Thus, that first day of her visit found her cleaning and slicing strawberries while I diced the rhubarb stalks that we picked early that morning.  We laughed the time away, enjoying each other’s company, the canning seeming more fun than work.  We ended up with a dozen lovely jars of jam and the warm feeling that comes from a lasting friendship that, like a hardy rhubarb plant, seems to thrive no matter what life brings.
            And, yes, we picked enough rhubarb to make Phyllis Starkebaum’s dessert, which we shared at church the following morning.

Phyllis Starkebaum’s Rhubarb Dessert
4 Cups rhubarb, chopped
2 Cups sugar, divided
1 Cup unbleached flour
1 Teaspoon baking powder
½ Cup margarine (Phyllis suggests Parkay)
1 Egg
Dash of salt
Whipped topping or ice cream to garnish

1.     Spread chopped rhubarb in bottom of 9-inch square pan and sprinkle ½ of the sugar over fruit.
2.     In bowl, mix remaining cup of sugar, flour and baking powder.
3.     Cut in margarine until mixture resembles pie dough
4.     Drop in the egg and dash of salt.
5.     Mix until dough clings together then drop by spoonsful onto top of rhubarb.
6.     Bake at 350°F for 45-50 minutes until nicely browned.
7.     Serve at room temperature with a dab of whipped topping or a scoop of ice cream.

Note:  I tried making this topping with butter, but found that margarine works best.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Seasons, life and soup

           The seasons come and go and life continues even as blogging takes a three-year hiatus.  The purple blooms on the lilac bushes outside my back door signal the arrival of spring and remind me that last year at this time I was away in Texas offering support to my granddaughter as she began the battle of her life against breast cancer.  She continues to fight, showing more courage than seems possible from that remembered toddler who would climb onto the back of her highchair daring it to tip over.  She speeds toward life head on, just like that two-year-old who raced on short, chubby legs to the dog door where she poked her head out and shouted, “train, train,” each time one traveled past our back yard; even when no one else heard the “clack, clack” of its iron wheels beating against the tracks.

            Shannon continues to thrive as she battles this horrid disease, faces her fears, works in her chosen career as a nurse and cares for her and husband Femi’s two-year-old son Camden, who reminds me so much of her at that age; just as daring and personable—a miniature individual with intelligent laughing eyes and a smile that melts.
            My own life continues too as I morn lost loved ones, two long-time friends who remain ingrained in so many of my warm, happy memories and other dear-to-me people whose spirits walk through my mind at unexpected moments.
            Life pulses on as my brother Stan and I deal with the loss of our third brother, this one estranged for over 20 years, and we attempt to figure out what emotions we should feel, how to forgive, how to remember the positives and let the negatives go.  “He might have been an asshole,” Stan said when our sister-in-law suggested we leave his remains for others to care for, “but he’s our asshole.”  How true, I thought, and smiled.
            Life going on means encounters with the aging process—aches, pains and diminished energy—while exclaiming that getting old is better than the alternative though I admit to having no clue what that might be.  I suspect no one else does either, even those who swear by heaven and hell.
            My writing life goes on as well; a novel that I can’t seem to finish, short stories of unique lives lived, a church history that coincided with a 100th anniversary celebration of its building and two commissioned memoirs that actually paid.
            And, as always, life mandates food.
            I’ve gone through a number of experimental phases over the past dozen seasons: cooking large pots of soup in a slow cooker, then freezing individual servings; grilling up a bunch of hamburgers and pork chops with the thought that I could just zap one as needed in the microwave; fixing entire meals then splitting them into ready-in-a jiffy plates.  Of these ideas, the only one that satisfied my taste buds completely was soup, the flavor and texture of which stands up well to freezing and reheating.
            One soup that worked well in my freezer came about when some kind soul left two bags of onions at our local Post Office with a note that said: “Free onions.”  I started to walk off, leaving them for, someone more in need, then thought better of it.  Actually, I thought, French Onion Soup, and grabbed up one of the bags, which contained around a dozen nice yellow onions.  I used them all to make a double batch of the recipe below.  Keep in mind that French Onion Soup takes time but the result warms a winter day.

French Onion Soup
1 Stick unsalted butter
6 Yellow onions (medium)
1 Teaspoon kosher salt
½ Teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Cup dry white wine
3 Cups low sodium beef broth
3 Cups low sodium chicken broth
2 Garlic cloves, minced
10 Sprigs thyme, tied in a bundle
2 Bay leaves
1 Baguette loaf, cut into 1” slices
4-6 Ounces Gruyere Cheese

1.     Preheat oven to 400° F
2.     Peel and halve onions then thinly slice root to tip.
3.     Melt butter in five- or six-quart Dutch oven over medium-low heat.
4.     Add onion slices, salt and sugar to melted butter; cover and cook for 30 minutes over medium-low heat.
5.     Stir onions and move pot to oven for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
6.     Remove pot from oven and add wine.  Stir to loosen any brown bits from pan bottom.
7.     Place pot on burner and cook wine over medium heat for five minutes.
8.     Add broth, minced garlic, thyme bundle and bay leaves to pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes.
9.     To serve immediately, divide into six bowls, top with toasted Baguette slices.  Sprinkle with shredded Gruyere and place under the broiler until cheese is hot and bubbly, 1-2 minutes.
10.  If freezing, divide into six airtight containers, cool completely and date.

            Note: I slice the Baguette into thick slices and freeze them in a separate bag.  When I feel like a bowl of French Onion Soup, I thaw out a serving of the soup in the refrigerator over night or thaw one in the microwave.  While I’m heating up the soup in a small pan, I pop a couple of the Baguette slices in the toaster, place the toasted slices on top of the hot soup, add the shredded gruyere and place the bowl under the broiler.  Yum!!