I grew up in a rhubarb family: large patches growing in my dad’s and grandpa’s gardens, rhubarb pie at Thanksgiving (never diluted with strawberries), and a stash of rhubarb sauce in my mom’s fridge that I put on everything from ice cream to Cheerios. Among the first things I planted when I moved to Montana were rhubarb eyes taken from my dad’s plants; they’ve since spread out into a garden patch that produces all summer long and never bolts—one of the few perks of gardening in the shady woods.
After a winter of playing with various combinations of produce-influenced cocktails that put a splash of summer into the grayest day, I instantly saw “beverage” when I cut my first stalks of rhubarb in spring. The straight rhubarb needed another flavor to balance the bright pink syrup, and I knew from making sorbet that rosemary would add just the right touch in a summer cocktail.
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
3 sprigs fresh rosemary (about 3 tablespoons fresh leaves)
Cut the rhubarb into 1/2-inch pieces. Combine the rhubarb and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir, reduce the heat to medium, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the rhubarb is quite soft. Remove the covered pan from the heat and allow the rhubarb to cool about 20 minutes so that it’s easier to handle. Pour the rhubarb through a wire mesh strainer into a measuring cup to separate the juice; you should have about 2 cups. Set aside the pulp (about 1-1/2 cups) for another use, such as Rhubarb–Orange–Ginger Marmalade (see below).
Return the juice to the saucepan and add 1/2 cup sugar for every cup of juice you collected (so 1 cup sugar if you collected 2 cups juice). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring as the sugar dissolves, and then let it boil for 1 minute so that it sets up slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rosemary sprigs. Let the syrup cool to room temperature and then remove the rosemary. Pour the syrup into a glass jar or other container, cover it with a lid, and store it in the refrigerator, using it when it is well chilled; it will keep about 2 weeks. Alternatively, pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze for later use. Makes about 2 cups.
2 ounces rum
2 ounces seltzer
1 strip lemon peel
1 sprig rosemary (optional)
Combine all liquid ingredients and stir. Add ice and a lemon strip, sliding in a sprig of rosemary as garnish if desired. Serves 1.
Tips & Tricks
- You can replace the syrup’s sugar with honey, if desired. The final syrup tastes slightly sweeter, but honey balances well in the cocktail and adds a subtle flavor. Other sweeteners like agave can be substituted instead; it’s mostly a matter of taste.
- If this syrup is too tart for you, just add more sweetener—while the syrup is on the stovetop. Add it straight to a cold cocktail, and you find a clump of honey or agave or a scrim of sugar when you reach the bottom of the glass. Boiling the simple syrup until the sweetener dissolves resolves the separation issue. More sugar also means it will likely keep longer in the fridge.
- I prefer rum in this beverage, but vodka also works well and I’ve been playing with a Bee’s Knees version that replaces the rosemary with ginger and rum with gin. The syrup can be used to sweeten a nonalcoholic spritzer, iced tea, or lemonade.
- My 4-year-old nephew loved this syrup (without the rosemary) as the secondary flavor of apricot fruit leather. Now that I know he can handle the rhubarb flavor, I may put the rosemary in next time—after all, he’s now 5 and has a more mature palate, right?
- Don’t throw out all that lovely rhubarb pulp; it too can be sweetened and stirred into hot breakfast cereal, served over ice cream, baked into a pie, or turned into Rhubarb–Orange–Ginger Marmalade.
Twice as Tasty
Marmalade was originally a quince preserve, but today the term is applied to a range of preserves that contain fruit pulp and peel, especially citrus. The fruit is typically cooked a long time to reduce the liquid and then boiled for 10 minutes or more to set the gel without the use of pectin. The process requires a bit of care to prevent burning, but the result is delicious.
Rhubarb pairs well with citrus, making it a natural for this type of spread. You could make it entirely from the leftover pulp of Rhubarb–Rosemary Syrup, but the syrup sucks all color from the rhubarb, leaving you with a dull tan preserve. Instead, fresh rhubarb and maceration let you cut back on the reduction time and produce a pale pink spread.
1 orange, zested and squeezed
5 cups granulated sugar
2 ounces ginger, slivered
reserved rhubarb pulp (about 1-1/2 cups) from Rhubarb–Rosemary Syrup
Cut the rhubarb into 1/2-inch pieces and add them to a large bowl. Zest the orange (you should have about 1-1/2 tablespoons zest), and then squeeze its juice into a measuring cup (you should have about 1/2 cup juice). Add the zest, juice, and sugar to the bowl. Stir, and then put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight to let the rhubarb macerate, or release its juices, and the sugar dissolve.
Pour the mixture into a wire mesh strainer set over a deep saucepan to drain; set the rhubarb slices aside. Bring the liquid to a full, rolling boil and cook until it starts to gel, about 15 minutes. Add the rhubarb slices, ginger, and rhubarb pulp to the gelled juice. Bring to a boil and cook for about 10 minutes or until the rhubarb slices are soft.
Tips & Tricks
- For more orange flavor, chop the orange and add the pieces to the mix. If your orange has pips, be sure to remove them as you chop. You can still capture their flavor by tying them into a piece of cheesecloth and adding them to the macerating mixture; remove them before you cook the jam.
- Don’t be put off by the amount of sugar in the recipe; it’s key to making the process work. Sugar, like salt, preserves food: As sugar dissolves, it draws moisture from cells and makes them less appealing to microbes. Drawing out this moisture also helps the rhubarb’s natural pectin chains come together to form a gel.
- Because you’re leaving the ginger in the marmalade, it’s best to sliver it into very narrow strips. The ginger will then continue to flavor the marmalade as it sits on the shelf.
- For less ginger flavor, cut the ginger into slices and add it to the rhubarb before it macerates. Then pick these slices out before you add the solids to the hot liquid.
- Gelling occurs between 205°F and 220°F, depending on your altitude, so you’ll need to get the mixture up to a full boil for the desired effect. It’s easiest to test gelling with a thermometer, but you can also test it by putting a bit of the hot marmalade on a cold spoon. If the spread hangs off the spoon in a sheet instead of dripping like water, it’s ready for the jar.