Several months ago, while out to dinner with some friends, I suggested to everyone that we try out some house-made drinking vinegars that were a staple of the restaurant’s menu. After mulling the various flavorings, we decided that we would order and share a few different vinegars, starting with pomegranate, moving along to a seasonal berry, and ending with rhubarb.
And this was the point at which the proverbial record came to a scratching halt. All heads whipped towards me as I was inundated with what I can only refer to as questions of worry and utmost concern, with perhaps the slightest bit of disgust thrown into the mix. Rhubarb? Rhubarb? That tart, bitter stuff that has to be mixed with strawberries and copious amounts of sugar in order to make it palatable, and you want to drink it in a vinegar? It was like I had admitted that I was a secret devotee of eating baby bunnies or drinking wine on the rocks (because those culinary transgressions are considered equal offenders in the eyes of many).
Rhubarb and I, however, have a long and loyal relationship. While many people consider the arrival of strawberries to be the signifier of the farmers market’s entrance into a new season, I look to rhubarb to welcome a season’s change. Fresh, new rhubarb is a beautiful sight when agonizing over the long wait through winter into spring, and I look forward to nothing more than gathering up bundles of the crimson stalks and shuttling them home for some springtime celebration in my kitchen. Simmered down to nearly nothing and paired with fresh mint, another blessed early-season crop, this week I transformed some new rhubarb into a delightfully cheerful syrup. Not just for splashing into a glass of plain soda water or on top of your favorite spirit, this syrup makes a phenomenal addition to waffles, pancakes, or even brushed in between layers of a simple butter cake. It’s a versatile treat that, unlike some other presentations of rhubarb, is sure to please everyone it meets. (For the record, I, and I alone, loved the rhubarb drinking vinegar.)
Rhubarb Mint Syrup
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed of rough ends and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cups water
juice of 1 large lime
¼ to 1/3 cup granulated sugar (depending on how tart vs. sweet you like things)
a large handful of fresh mint leaves
In a medium saucepan, combine rhubarb and water and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for around 20 minutes, until the rhubarb has completely broken down. Drain the rhubarb through a fine mesh sieve, collecting the liquid in a medium bowl. Use a ladle or spatula to press down the rhubarb and extract as much of the liquid as possible.
Pour the liquid back into the saucepan. Add the lime juice and your desired amount of sugar, then stir to dissolve the sugar while bringing the mixture to a low boil. Allow to gently boil for an additional 20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit and is starting to thicken.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, squeeze the handful of fresh mint leaves to bruise them a bit and help them release their oils, then stir the mint leaves into the syrup. Cover, and allow to steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh sieve to remove all the mint leaves and any errant rhubarb bits. Allow syrup to cool completely before transferring to bottles or jars and covering with a tight lid.
Store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks.
Makes a generous 3 cups of syrup.