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Rhubarb, that sour stalk that people either love or not, has just started to land at the grocery store and farmers markets. If there’s a plant in your garden, it’s becoming more robust with each sunny day.
The old-fashioned name for rhubarb is pie plant, probably because that’s what most of us do with it: We make a pie. It’s a vegetable, not a fruit, although generally, we treat it as a fruit — a tart one. Native to Asia, rhubarb was used for medicinal purposes in China and by the Greeks and Romans. While the stalks are edible, the leaves are poisonous, so trim them off before cooking.
When buying rhubarb, choose crisp, fresh-looking stalks. Color doesn’t count, but redder rhubarb does make a more vibrant dessert. My mother used to add a few drops of red food coloring to her rhubarb compote. She also made a mean rhubarb pie, but I liked it best without strawberries because it was tarter that way. Rhubarb lovers are passionate.
Baking authorities Kate McDermott, who wrote “Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings and Life,” and Yossy Arefi, author and photographer of “Sweeter Off the Vine: Fruit Desserts for Every Season,” both have a chapter devoted to rhubarb in their books, along with must-try recipes.
Ms. McDermott came late to rhubarb, which didn’t grow around her hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. She discovered it upon moving to the Pacific Northwest where the cool misty climate is favorable, and almost everyone has a plant growing.
“I started putting it in baked goods, especially in the last 12 to 15 years, as I’ve gone on my pie journey,” she said. “I was making straight rhubarb pies, and I thought those are really good. I wanted to be able to embrace the tartness. It’s a bright explosion of flavor in your mouth.”
In her book, a comprehensive, trouble-shooting, handholding guide to all things pie, Ms. McDermott often mixes rhubarb with other fruits.
“I’ve done all the berries,” she said. “All wonderful. Yet I would not put another tart fruit in with rhubarb, like gooseberries. But the possibility of what that might be named is just tickling my fancy. Rhu-goose pie?”
Ms. Arefi has always loved rhubarb. Her Iran-born father grows it in the family’s garden in Washington state. Now living in Brooklyn, she buys her rhubarb from the local Greenmarket. “If I had a garden, rhubarb would be one of the first things I’d plant,” she said.
Her heritage plays “an indirect role” in her baking and flavors. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to balanced sweet and tart flavors.” Many Iranian dishes incorporate sour elements (sometimes rhubarb) and fresh herbs to balance the richness of foods.
“Sweeter Off the Vine” is all about baking with the seasons. It opens with herbs and moves onto rhubarb, the first fruit of spring. “I love rhubarb’s color, its bright flavor,” she said. “In a dessert, if something is too sweet, you miss the more nuanced flavors.”
A couple of standout rhubarb recipes include her Rhubarb and Rose Galette. These small free-form tarts are tucked around rhubarb macerated with fresh vanilla bean and rosewater. She also loves Rhubarb and Rye Upside-Down Cake. “It has a bit of rye flavor, which is sour, as well, with a milky sweetness,” she said.
Ms. Arefi encourages people to try rhubarb on its own, especially for a first taste. She mentioned her spring breakfast of crisp raw rhubarb stalks, thinly sliced and sweetened with a bit of sugar or honey, atop her morning yogurt. If that’s too radical, make her rhubarb compote.
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mmmrubin.
Rhuberry Bluebarb Pie
Among many pie-making tricks, author Kate McDermott suggested adding the butter you’re supposed to top the filling with to the bowl of filling itself, in case you forget to add it (like I always do). Let this pie cool completely so the filling will thicken.
1 recipe double-crust pie dough (see recipe)
3/4 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (2½ cups)
1½ cups, about 1/2 pound, blueberries or blackberries
Generous 3/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon sugar for sprinkling on pie
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons instant or quick-cooking tapioca
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Scant 1/2 teaspoon fine table salt
Grating or two of nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon cold butter, cut up
1 egg white plus 1 tablespoon water, fork beaten
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out one piece of dough and place in 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate while making filling.
In medium bowl, put rhubarb, berries, sugar, flour, tapioca, lemon juice, salt and nutmeg. Toss to coat fruit, add butter and mix lightly. Turn into the waiting pie dough in pie plate.
Roll out remaining dough, cut out 1 to 4 small shapes with a 1½-inch cookie cutter to make vents, if you like. Lay crust over filling. Or, you can cut 5 to 6 vents on top with knife. Trim excess dough from edges, fold up edges, press together and crimp or decorate with floured fork. Lightly brush egg wash over entire pie, including edges and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. (Ms. McDermott adds her sugar topping later in the bake.)
Place on middle oven rack. Put rimmed baking sheet on rack underneath to catch any drips. Bake 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 375 degrees. Bake 30 to 35 more minutes, until filling is steadily bubbling and crust is browned. If it starts to overbrown, cover loosely with a sheet of foil. Transfer to wire rack and let cool completely before serving.
Makes 1 pie.
— Adapted from “Art of the Pie” by Kate McDermott (Norton; October, 2016)
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, leveled off
1/2 teaspoon fine table salt
8 tablespoons butter, cut up
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup ice water, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons more as needed
Put all ingredients but ice water in large bowl. With clean hands, quickly “smoosh” mixture together, or use a pastry blender with an up and down motion, until it looks like cracker crumbs with lumps the size of peas and almonds.
Sprinkle over ice water and stir lightly with a fork. Squeeze a handful of dough to see if it holds together. Mix in more water as needed. Shape dough into a big ball. Divide in half, make two chubby discs about 5 inches across. Wrap each in plastic wrap and chill 1 hour.
Take out the dough discs and let temper until slightly soft to the touch and easy to roll. Unwrap one and place on a well-floured board or pastry cloth.
Sprinkle some flour on top. Thump disc with your rolling pin several times. Turn it over and thump other side. Sprinkle more flour onto dough as needed to keep rolling pin from sticking, and roll it out from the center in all directions until it’s 1 to 2 inches larger than your pie pan. Brush off extra flour on both sides.
Fold dough over the top of pin and lay it in the pie pan carefully. If patching, paint a little water where it needs to be patched and “glue” on the patch.
Makes 1 double-crust pie or 2 single-crust pies.
— Adapted from “Art of the Pie”
Rhubarb Compote. (Yossy Arefi)
Spiced Rhubarb Compote
The flavor of this compote just sings. Author Yossy Arefi says stir it into oatmeal, add a dollop on plain yogurt, or spread on buttery biscuits or croissants. She also writes that she often just eats it from a spoon. That’s as far as I’ve gone.
1 pound rhubarb, leaves removed, cut into ½-inch pieces
1/2 vanilla bean
1¼ cups granulated sugar
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated finely
1 whole star anise
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Put rhubarb in heavy, nonreactive saucepan. Use tip of a knife to split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out seeds. Add sugar, ginger, star anise, vanilla seeds and pod and lemon juice to rhubarb. Stir to combine, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 2 hours at room temperature, until rhubarb is nice and juicy.
Bring mixture to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, until thickened and jammy, 10 to 15 minutes. (Mine took about 3 minutes more, and it thickens upon cooling.)
Remove star anise and vanilla pod; rinse off vanilla pod and save for another use. Transfer compote to clean jars and store in refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Makes about 2½ cups.
— Adapted from “Sweeter off the Vine” by Yossy Arefi (Ten Speed Press, March, 2016)
Rhubarb-Almond Crumble (Miriam Rubin)
The rhubarb shines true in this easy-to-make crumble. It’s great warm from the oven and delightful with softly whipped real cream. No fake stuff here, please.
About 1¼ pounds rhubarb, cut into ¼-inch pieces (5 cups)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup chopped skin-on almonds
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut up
For the rhubarb: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss rhubarb, sugar and flour in a 12-by-8-inch baking dish. Spread in even layer.
For the topping: In large bowl, mix flour, sugar, oats, almonds and salt. Crumble in butter with your fingers until well blended and mixture is clumpy. Sprinkle over the rhubarb.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until topping is browned and filling bubbly. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 5 servings.
— Miriam Rubin