Deep in the recesses of the Hayner backyard, and between the months of April and August, you could always find at least one of three natural harbingers of the season: forsythia, lilacs, and/or rhubarb. Standing guard with unruly pride along the border between our yard and our neighbor’s, these overgrown heirlooms, residing behind the tall turret of the swing set club house, which was behind the back garden, which was behind the pool, held a certain dangerous allure, at least for a kid of eleven. Drawn by the scent of lilacs, one could wander back there to feel quite far away from things and then, through the branches of the forsythia tree, conveniently (yet terrifyingly… again, for an eleven year old), witness the neighbor boys, who were like, 4 and 6 years older – and therefore unspeakably cooler – than you, undertaking the traditional Saturday yard-work/car-washing omnibus, with or without the presence of ratty junior high gym class t-shirts.

It was in this excited but of course rather fraught natural context that I first became acquainted with rhubarb. My father – the preserver and pie-maker in the family (Big John is a true Renaissance man) – had a few times put the nontoxic part of the weedlike rhizome to use in tanging up some of his applesauce and various berry and apple pies, so I was familiar with it in its tamed, smooth, cooked-down state. But here, in the wilds of the backyard, the shirtlessness and the adolescent nerves and the smell of bees and grass and imminent sunburn on my shoulders and the almost-obnoxiously enormous jungle green of the rhubarb leaves hiding the smartly pink stalks which held them aloft dizzied my mind into such a summer stupor that any vision of domestic subordination of this savage, exotic realm was simply impossible.
But then, last weekend (and about fifteen years after the Backyard Trance Chronicles), I went to the farmer’s market. I thought, by arriving at about 9am, that I would beat the wild mob of strollers and lattes and Hunter boots and strategically distressed denim.
Silly, silly, silly me.
So I found myself adrift in a sea not only of designer sunglasses and fleece vests and really shiny hair, but also of asparagus, leeks, and rhubarb. And that’s it. I mean, I understand – ’tis the season for not much else in the Midwest. Sure, the cheese folks and the wheatgrass-shot guy were there and the guy with the really great but really expensive apple cider was there and the sun was shining and you know what, jesusIhatepeopleIjustwantedsomenicethingsandwhyiseveryoneinmyway.
Five minutes and about ten dollars later, I rode back north on the Lakefront Trail with three things in my bag. Say it with me: asparagus, leeks, and rhubarb. Sigh.
After a bit more coffee and a shower, though, I entered my kitchen with renewed energy and overall patience with my universe. (I find coffee and bathing are good for resetting the mind, in general.) I looked at the rhubarb stalks arranged in repose on my counter, staring innocently up at me, and got to work.
Turns out all you need to tame you some rhubarb and make a compote is a big knife and a 1/4 cup of sugar.
Starting with 8 small/skinny stalks of rhubarb, or 4 fat ones (like what they now seem to be carrying at Whole Foods):
  • Rinse and dry the stalks
  • Chop roughly into about 1/4 inch pieces, but accuracy isn’t at all important – it all breaks down in the pan later
  • Throw rhubarb in a large bowl and combine with 1/4 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt, then cover with a kitchen towel
  • Go about your life for an hour or two (seriously, leave the apartment if you want – the rhubarb has seen more than its share of shirtless neighbor boys and $1000 strollers – it’s not going anywhere)
  • Come back and put rhubarb and its juice (which will have seeped out quite nicely by now) in a small nonstick pan over high heat
  • Once the liquid begins to bubble a bit, turn heat to medium and cook until the pieces of rhubarb become stringy and fall apart
  • The compote keeps in the fridge for at least a week, if not more.

Of course, you can freeze this as well, or, you know, just stand around eating it with a spoon. My new favorite breakfast, though, has become greek yogurt with a healthy slather of rhubarb compote and a dab of lemon curd. Yes, tangy.

Wake up, Alice, you’ve fallen asleep under the swing set and your shoulders are sunburned.

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