Spring is my favorite season in Nebraska. During a short sliver of time between the dreary winter and scorching summer, the landscape is punctuated by fragrant trees, freshly mown grass and meadows of goldenrod. A new season always brings a renewed sense of adventure and a desire to explore new flavors and textures. When I saw a cluster of crimson rhubarb at my local grocery store last week, I was immediately transported back to Grandma Betty’s garden.
In addition to her big heart, Betty had quite the green thumb. After she and John married in 1945, Betty grew containers of herbs and vegetables on the balconies of their apartments in Baltimore and Philadelphia. When they moved to Cozad, Nebraska in 1959, John made sure the backyard had ample room for a large vegetable and berry plot.
Betty’s lush garden produced seemingly endless amounts of cucumbers, zucchini, beets, lettuce, corn, beans, peas, strawberries, onions, potatoes and tomatoes. What Betty couldn’t eat or give away, she’d can. I remember jars upon jars of dill and sweet cucumber pickles, pickle relish, tomatoes, salsa, pickled beets, cinnamon apples and horseradish. Overripe strawberries were turned into jams and jellies. And there was always the mysterious rhubarb.
I remember being cautioned by Grandma Betty that rhubarb was poisonous. After she told me that, I never looked at the red-stalked vegetable (or fruit) the same way. It turns out that Betty was mostly right. Rhubarb leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause illness if too much is ingested. Fortunately, there’s only a small percentage of oxalic acid present in the stalks.
As we come to the end of April and my exploration of my culinary heritage, I could think of no better way to honor Grandma Betty and Grandpa John than with a celebratory rhubarb cocktail.
I simmered chunks of rhubarb in simple syrup to highlight its sweet-tart flavor. After straining the syrup, I was left with a bright and uncannily pink syrup, ready to be mixed into the perfect spring cocktail.
Inspired by the original gin and lemon Tom Collins, I created an easy-drinking Sparkling Raspberry and Rhubarb Collins. I muddled together fresh raspberries and rhubarb syrup with a healthy dose of lemon juice and gin. After a quick shake over ice, I strained the mixture into a glass and topped with sparkling club soda. If you’re feeling extra festive, ditch the soda water and try it with your favorite sparkling wine instead.
The rhubarb syrup will also be an excellent mixer in your favorite gin and tonic or margarita recipe. No alcohol? No problem. Mix the syrup with fresh fruit and soda water for a non-alcoholic spring sipper.
Though I don’t remember John and Betty to be cocktail drinkers, I’d like to imagine them enjoying a Collins or two when they were dating in Baltimore in the 1940s. This modern spin on the classic Collins is easy to drink, refreshing and utterly delicious.
- Rhubarb Simple Syrup
- 1 cup water
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 cups rhubarb, diced
- Pinch of salt
- Rhubarb and Raspberry Collins
- 1½ ounces gin (try Hendrick's for its floral notes)
- 1 ounce rhubarb simple syrup
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- 6 raspberries
- Soda water or sparkling wine
- Raspberries and lemon wedges for garnish
- To make syrup: Place water, sugar, rhubarb and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until rhubarb is soft and mixture is slightly thickened, about 35 minutes. Cool slightly and then strain through a fine mesh sieve. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
- To make Collins: Add rhubarb simple syrup and rapsberries to a cocktail shaker. Muddle to crush raspberries. Add ice, gin and lemon juice. Shake until chilled, about 10 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Adjust sweetness level to taste by adding more lemon juice or simple syrup. Top with soda water or sparkling wine, garnish with raspberries and lemon wedges. Serve immediately.