“I got rhubarb!” That was my husband’s voice on the end of my phone calling in from one of his foraging trips to the Shenandoah Valley. We get a lot of our local produce and other goodies for the Farm to Family bus from small family, often Mennonite, farms there.
Immediately I began planning the rhubarb pie that I would make as soon as I got my hands on it. When most folks think of rhubarb, they think of pie, and in fact, pie plant is its common name. Rhubarb’s debut is heralded with great excitement, as it is a harbinger of spring and the bounty that follows. Along with the appearance of asparagus and strawberries, winter, and the endless reworking of those root vegetables, is finally over.
I eagerly posted that we had RHUBARB! on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and our shoppers, experienced rhubarb bakers, and the curious alike, grab it by the handfuls.
WHAT’S THAT? AND HOW DO YOU COOK IT?
One of our customers pointed at the stalks and asked, “What’s that! I want some!” a common phrase heard in our market and farm bus. I explained it was rhubarb and proceeded to tell her how to make a pie and to tell her what I knew of it, passed down from my mom and other relatives.
Rhubarb is an old-fashioned plant, like peonies and sweet peas, that are the memory of long ago gardens planted by farm women. They are functional as well as beautiful, like those pioneer women who planted them, with strong, sturdy, blushing red and pink stalks, and graceful, full dark green leaves.
I drove my mom North recently, to our family homestead on the Quebec border for her summer visit (where it snowed immediately before and after our trip!) Along the way we saw rhubarb patches near old farm houses as we drove into the deeply rural area near home in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
Mom and I had a lively discussion of rhubarb which began with remembrance of her mother’s Rhubarb Pie recipe, which is a lovely spring treat and “easy as pie” to make.
We discussed other family favorites as the miles flew by: rhubarb cake, rhubarb crumble, rhubarb cobbler, rhubarb sauce, the addition of strawberries to everything rhubarb (Mom likes her rhubarb unadulterated while I like a little strawberry here and there). Several miles were devoted to the exciting rhubarb ice cream that mom and dad made when I was a small child, taking my turn cranking the old ice cream maker. It seemed like my arm would fall off, but oh how wonderful that rhubarb ice cream tasted!
As a child I used to love to pick rhubarb and bite into it, so sour my eyes would cross and mouth pucker. The leaves made lovely elf hats for me and my dolls, but I was always careful to avoid eating those leaves, as my mother told me over and over, they were DEADLY POISON!
Avoid those leaves, as they do contain oxalates — chop them off and put them in compost. Those poisons in rhubarb leaves break down harmlessly during the composting process. Or, make a rhubarb garden spray with those leaves to keep the aphids off your roses.
GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YOU!
I’m an eager student of everything plant, and I like to research the uses of plants beyond their culinary delights. Rhubarb was one of those foods from my childhood my father would proclaim “good for what ails you.” I’m not sure where he got his education from, probably from his Grandma Settie, but in researching various things claimed to be good for me, I’ve found him to usually be right.
Rhubarb is a plant originally found in China and was traditionally used for medicinal purposes and became a great commodity for traders and travelers from Asia to Europe. The type of rhubarb we are most familiar eating here in the US, English Rhubarb, was brought to the New World for its medicinal roots, and generally used as a purgative, to treat the stomach, colon and liver ailments. Recent research indicates it may be helpful as a way to lower cholesterol. The vegetable is considered to be a whole food medicine and a source of potassium, calcium and moderate amounts of vitamins A and C. It is also low in calories, if you don’t use sugar!
Rhubarb’s red color contains antioxidant ‘free radical scavenging’ activity. These phyto-chemical micronutrients protect the heart, lungs and blood vessels and have also been proven to lower the risk of developing some types of cancer.
GET BACK TO THE PIE, PLEASE!
It wasn’t until the 18th century that rhubarb became used for culinary purposes, but it seems its popularity rapidly spread. Today rhubarb is making its comeback in haute cuisine and even Jamie Oliver uses it in his ‘Slow-roasted Duck with Sage, Ginger and Rhubarb Homemade Sauce’. I wonder what Alice the Lunch Lady thinks of that recipe. If you feel adventurous, an internet search will reveal recipes from rhubarb crumble with clotted cream to rhubarb champagne.
Choose rhubarb that is firm and brightly colored, and preferably stalks that have been pulled, not cut. Trim the leaves, the roots and any strings (like celery) and use as soon as possible. You can also store in a zip lock in the fridge, or cut it into pieces and freeze it to use later.Here’s my Grandma’s pie recipe – we think its still the best.
4 cups rhubarb, cut into ½” slices
1 ¼- 1/3 cups sugar (more or less, depending on how tart your rhubarb is)
3 Tablespoons of flour (for gluten-free try cornstarch, potato or tapioca flour)
½ teaspoon lemon juice.
1. Mix the flour into the sugar.
2. Beat the egg and mix the sugar/flour into it.
3. Mix the rhubarb into the egg/sugar mixture and pour into bottom crust.
4. Sprinkle with lemon juice.
5. Put small pats of butter on top.
6. Put on top crust and cut pattern through the top crust.
7. Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake 425 for ten minutes.
Then bake at 375 until it bubbles through the cuts in the top.
Be sure to put a pan under it, because mine always boils over.
Use your favorite pie crust for a two crust pie.
If you prefer gluten free, like me, here are some suggestions so that you don’t have pie envy.
If you are GF pie crust challenged, try Gluten Free Pantry’s Perfect Pie Crust box mix.
If you like to bake and want a great GF crust recipe, try:
Gluten Free Pie Crust from Elanaspantry’s Elana Amsterdam. Her blog is fun and everything is delicious, kid-tested, nutritious and fairly easy to make.
For more info on rhubarb and recipes: