In early spring, one of our rhubarb plants, the red-stalked ’Canadian Red’ Rhubarb -- with large, rippled leaves -- was flourishing, flashily. It's planted at the edge of the middle garden bed, near where the dianthus used to be.
The other rhubarb, ’Victoria,’ with its green stalks, has a less fortunate place to live; it’s down among the raspberry bushes. This year I just couldn't find it. I thought it didn't make it through the winter. I know I almost didn't.
Finally, it began to emerge, starting out as little curled fists, which opened and grew into leafy stalks. It got a real boost in March when temps were in the 80s. Followed by a 24-degree morning, when the red rhubarb sustained severe frostbite. The green one was damaged but less so. Still, it's been very poky and a bit puny this year, while the red rhubarb has recovered gloriously.
’Victoria’ has another enemy, in addition to a tough, crowded neighborhood. There's an odd hard-shelled yellowish-green bug that's eaten great bites out of the leaves: the Rhubarb Curculio Beetle. Now since rhubarb leaves are toxic to us, one would hope they would do that bug in. Nope. So when I see the critter, I squash it.
The rhubarb beetle lays its eggs in the perennial weeds surrounding the rhubarb and in the rhubarb itself. The eggs overwinter, and while the activity of rhubarb rapidly growing crushes those eggs, they survive well in the surrounding weeds. So we’ve been working at keeping the area weeded; mulching with some clean straw comes next. This varmit loves dock, thistle and sunflowers.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant and a vegetable. It comes back, with luck, every year for a time – up to 20 years, I’ve read -- and it’s generally treated like a fruit. Conversely, tomatoes are a fruit. This can get confusing but really it’s all in the hands of the cook. Tomatoes are most often not sweetened, while rhubarb is. Some people like rhubarb savory (sour) as well. Some like to pluck rhubarb ribs from the plant and chomp down while they pass through the garden. Others dip the raw stem in sugar. Me, I make pie.
After all, the charming, old-fashioned name for rhubarb is pie plant, so there should be no confusion about the best use for it. Some insist on adding strawberries, but I think they get in the way of rhubarb’s pure punch. But if you insist, I won’t object. Fold in about 1 cup of thickly sliced hulled berries. Maybe a touch more sugar, too. You also can make stewed rhubarb compote and rhubarb crisp; last year I made a rhubarb bread pudding. But pie is really the way I like to roll.
In the garden, it’s a magical time when everything seems possible in growing terms. There’s so much daylight that when we eat dinner and it’s not yet dark outside, it seems too early to wind down. We’ve been waiting for rain, too, so all the plants and sprouts get a good, deep drink. Now I’m waiting for the rhubarb to grow more stalks, since I’ve picked it rather heavily. Nearly time to bake another rhubarb pie.
Blue Ribbon Rhubarb Lattice Pie
This pie is a little juicy, especially if you cut into it warm. Let it cool. I know, it’s not easy. Serve it with real whipped cream, or all by itself.
Pie pastry for a double-crust pie
1 cup granulated sugar (use a couple tablespoons more if your rhubarb is very tart)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
4 cups ½-inch pieces rhubarb (just over a pound), with all leaves removed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream or milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into thin slices
Topping: 1 tablespoon granulated sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon and pinch ground allspice
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out 1 piece of pastry on floured cutting board with floured rolling pin to a 12-inch round. Fit into bottom of 9-inch pie plate. Trim to a 1-inch overhang. Refrigerate while making the filling.
Mix sugar, flour, cinnamon, allspice and salt in large bowl. Add rhubarb and lemon juice and toss to mix well. Pile into crust. Brush edges of pastry with egg wash. Dot with butter.
Roll 2nd piece of pastry to a ¼-inch thickness. Using a ruler as a guide, cut ½-inch wide strips with knife or pastry wheel and fit strips over top of pie in lattice fashion. Trim long ends of strips. Fold edge of bottom pastry over and seal together with fingers. Flute the edge or decorate with a floured fork.
Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with spiced sugar topping. Place pie plate on baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350 and bake 40 to 50 minutes longer, until juices are bubbly and thickened and crust is well browned. Cool on wire rack before serving.
Makes 1 pie.
-- Miriam Rubin
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mmmrubin.