Strawberries and rhubarb are as fine a culinary pairing as there is. Like tomatoes with basil or chocolate with cherries, each delightful on its own, together they are serendipitous. I like the word serendipity because it describes a good surprise discovered or revealed on the way to another place, an “aha” that comes as a kind of sidebar of another intent. A famous story of serendipity is that of Archimedes sitting down into his bath and noticing how his body displaced the water, meaning, made its level rise. Eureka! he exclaimed, and from such a simple observation came the law of buoyancy which explains that the weight of any object in water will float or sink according to its weight in relation to the volume of the water. Archimedes’ aha! has had ever-widening ramifications in various fields of science, from how to float submarines to how to sink them. The etymology of the word, however, is Persian, based on the story The Three Princes of Serendip, a real place that is now called Sri Lanka. It tells how a wise king’s three sons, though well-tutored, were not yet wise enough to assume rule of the kingdom. So the king sent them on a journey to discover their personal sagacity. On the journey, the princes are pressed to identify a camel they have never seen and must deduce its identity from obscure evidence. A similar story turns up in the Talmud, also with a camel as a central character. In this one, two slaves must convince their master that their description of the camel as having a blind eye is correct. Both stories, the one with the three princes seeking their father’s approval so they can become kings, the other with two slaves looking for their freedom, lay out a similar quest to parse circumstantial evidence that leads to a solution of a posed puzzle. In both cases, there’s a happy ending when the clues are put together and the “puzzle” is solved. The three princes become kings and the slaves are given their liberty. And thus, a combination of intuition and paying attention to your senses melds into serendipity.
Eventually the word came to mean a felicitous, unexpected combining of things that might not at first obviously go together. In other words, with serendipity there is some poetry involved, for instance, making a jam of strawberries and rhubarb. Though they are seasonal companions, both in the wild and in kitchen gardens, it took a cook to put them together in a pot, serendipitously add a touch of sugar, and voila, palpable serendipity!
Tip: The trick to making jam in the microwave is to cook it in three stages: cook, stir, cook, stir, rest, stir, and finish the cooking. That way, the sugars don’t get burned as the jam thickens. The mixture will be runny when the instructions say to stop the cooking. But keep in mind, it thickens as it cools. This method works like a charm for jams of plum, apricot, blueberry, and other summer fruits.
Makes 1 1/ 2 cups jam
2 pounds fresh strawberries, rinsed, green leaves cut off
2 stalks rhubarb (about 2/ 3 pound), green tops cut off
1/ 3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1. Cut the strawberries in half lengthwise and place them in a 3-quart microwave bowl. Cut the rhubarb lengthwise into 1/ 2-inch wide strips, then slice them crosswise into 1/ 2-inch wide pieces. Add to the bowl with the strawberries.
2. Add the sugar and lemon juice and, without stirring,
microwave for 10 minutes. Stir, and microwave for 10 minutes more. Let rest in the microwave without heat for 10 minutes. Stir again and microwave for 5 minutes more, until the mixture is bubbling up vigorously. Remove and set aside to cool completely. Use right away or refrigerate for up to 6 weeks.