Rhubarb and I, let's just say that we are not having the best of relationships.
It's a plant I do not quite understand, which, by the way, is not an uncommon situation if you happen to come from a country where such living organism does not exist.
Serbian language does not even have a word for rhubarb.
"Look," my dad said the other day as we made our way through the stalls of the Union Square greenmarket, "look, red celery!"
"It's not red celery Dad," I corrected him, "it's rhubarb."
"What is rhubarb?" Mr. Stan asked. He likes to compare the produce I buy here at the Union Square with what he gets at the Kalenić Market in Belgrade. My dad and I live and shop one ocean, two continents and a couple of mindsets apart, but our two markets are dead ringers most of the time.
With a notable exception of rhubarb.
"Um, rhubarb is, how shall I put it, a plant. Sort of like red celery. Except that leaves are kind of poisonous."
Mr. Stan laughed.
"What does one make with it?"
"Pies. Tarts. Crisps. Compote. Desserts mainly. Pickles..."
Not that I have ever made any of the above, because, as I said, I do not quite understand rhubarb. I prefer when others make it for me. Even though I've been shopping and cooking here, under the New York sun for close to two decades, I have yet to venture down the rhubarb alley.
Except for one notable exception.
See, I might not understand rhubarb, but I understand booze. To be more specific, I understand liqueur. I do realize that this makes me sound like a notorious drunkard, so let me clarify. I practically grew up making all kinds of sweet and seductive alcoholic drinks -- you kind of have to when you are born to a country where summers are bountiful with the most wonderful fruits: strawberries, apricots, blackberries, raspberries, sour cherries... In a fear of harsh Balkan winters we did our best to preserve the summer magic, and we turned the fruits into jams, syrups, marmalades, compotes and candies -- you name it. But when we were done preserving, there was still plenty of fruit left, and what else can one do in such situation but throw the fruit into slivovitz, which sort of flows in Serbia like water, like honey, like milk, like all its mighty rivers and undercurrents combined.
I made my first fruit liqueur when I was six, assisting Mr. Stan on his annual liqueur-making project. And what a fascinating project it was! We started by picking the yummiest fruits (as a rule the liqueur bottle always got the best pieces, because it shows and one rotten cherry can take down the entire production). We then placed our fruits into old, chubby, dark green Black & White whiskey bottles -- carefully, carefully -- pushing the fruits into the bottle gently, piece by piece, and then covered the fruit piles with sugar. Mr. Stan placed the bottles on the balcony and forgot about them for a week or two, giving the fruits their dose of sunshine, waiting for the sugar snow-dust to turn into syrup. When metamorphosis took place, Mr. Stan added spices, raisins, apricot kernels, vanilla and finally brandy. We then forgot about the bottles for the second time, this time for a couple of months, allowing the flavors to unite and mature, until fruit was no longer fruit and slivovitz was no longer slivovitz, and only the essence of the two remained -- united.
When I was seven, I took my very first sip of fruit liqueur; during Christmas Eve dinner, when adults were not watching, too distracted with the magic of the holiday and the table of delicacies, I stole a sip of apricot liqueur from Mom's glass. A year or two later, when I acquired the courage and skill to climb shelves of my grandmothers pantry, I embezzled three sour cherries from a bottle of her precious višnjavača (sour cherry liqueur). They were magical -- tipsy with slivovitz, intoxicatingly purple and heavy with the adrenaline from the steal.
Suffice it to say that, yes, a pie might pose a challenge, and cobbler might pose a challenge, and compote might pose a challenge, but thanks to my remarkable liqueur-making pedigree, there is a thing I can make with rhubarb. And that, my friends, is exactly what Mr. Stan and I did last weekend, together, just as we did it for the first time over forty years ago.
p.s. We also did some fact checking and learned that there IS a word for rhubarb in Serbian language!!! What an outstanding discovery! In case you are curious, the word is raven; it was hiding on page 307 of the second volume of my trusted Prosveta's English-Serbian Dictionary, between entries for rhotacize and rhumb. "Raven is a plant used in compote making," my Prosveta dictionary teaches. Ha! One learns something new every day. Perhaps I'll try compote next year. No more excuses...
Try picking the reddest rhubarb possible for this endevour, because it will give the liqueur a beautifully vivid pink color. If you are using less colorful stalks, the liquid will be more like pale pink, which, come to think about it, is a beautiful color too. This is one of those recipes that work the best when eyeballed. Sort of like: take a bottle, fill it up with rhubarb pieces a little bit more than half, say 5/8 way to the top, pour sugar until rhubarb is completely covered, then pour vodka all the way to the top. But for those who really like recipes, it goes like this.
* about 14-16 oz rhubarb, washed carefully, dried and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
* about 8 oz granulated sugar
* 1/4 tsp rosewater (optional)
* about 2 cups vodka
* one 1 L bottle
Discard any rhubarb pieces with brown spots or blemishes.
Sterilize the bottle by boiling it for 15-20 minutes, then dry it in 125 F° oven for about 30 minutes.
Place the rhubarb pieces into the bottle (it should fill up the bottle almost 3/4 way to the top). Pour the sugar over the rhubarb, until rhubarb is completely covered in sugar. If using, add rosewater. Fill up the bottle with vodka. Leave in a dark cool place for 40 days, then strain the rhubarb. Serve at the end of the meal, with desserts, or use in cocktails.