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Fast and easy strawberry-rhubarb pie. June 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s the end of local strawberry and rhubarb season here, which makes me want to cry. The local strawberries are so much more delicious than those store-bought, hard, tongue-curdling whitish berries you get in the store. You can smell the homegrown berries the minute you enter one of the Old Order Mennonite farm stands in our area. (They’re horse-and-buggy people like the Amish.) And the rhubarb is slender-stalked and tender.

Do our friend Ben and I grow strawberries and rhubarb here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA? You betcha. But we have a little problem. Every year, the birds—who apparently know to the second when our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and elderberries will be ripe—beat us to the crop. In the case of the strawberries, chipmunks (who invariably eat half a berry and leave the rest in plain sight just to torment us) and slugs also eat their fill. As for the rhubarb, ours grows into such huge, gorgeous ornamental plants that I can’t bear to harvest the stalks. Thus, on to the Mennonite stands.

I’m going to guess that rhubarb plants don’t flourish in hot, humid climates, since I’d never encountered rhubarb in any form while growing up in Nashville. But up here in scenic PA, it’s one of the first fresh treats of spring, along with strawberries, asparagus and young dandelion greens (unsprayed, please). I quickly fell in love with rhubarb’s distinctive flavor, stewed and spooned over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt, made into pies (I actually prefer an all-rhubarb pie to the famous strawberry-rhubarb pie), or made into rhubarb jam.*

We’d had such luscious strawberries from a nearby Mennonite farm stand that we ate the entire box plain, then rushed back for more. But this time, the girl who took our order dumped the box of ripe berries into a plastic bag. By the time we got home, the berries were mushed and pouring out juice. I quickly put the bag in the fridge. We returned for more berries (in the box this time), and I saw the slender, tender rhubarb stalks on sale, so I bought a bunch of them as well.

To make the most of that luscious but mushy bag of strawberries, before they got moldy, I decided to try my hand at making strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was my first try at making any pie but pecan pie. You see, in the South of my childhood, pies were a lot different than they are in the North. There were pecan pies, chess pies, banana cream pies, chocolate icebox pies, and for super-special occasions, rum pies. Fruit (with the exception of bananas) was baked into cobblers, not made into pies as it is up here. Cobblers are so easy, so delicious, and so accommodating that it seemed ridiculous to put a blueberry-peach, raspberry-peach, blackberry, cherry, peach, or [your favorite fruit here] filling in a piecrust.

At this point, I wish I’d made strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. (In case anyone reading doesn’t know, a cobbler tops a jammy fruit filling with a crumbly, crunchy mix of flour, oatmeal, salted butter, and often spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom.) We’ll get to why in a minute (I have to take the blame for actually asking OFB to do something without supervision, but that’s another matter).

To get started, I consulted my good friend Google to check out strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes. Yuck! Every one of them had you make a piecrust, and either a second piecrust for topping the pie or enough extra dough to make a lattice top. Making a piecrust involves cutting very cold, chopped-up butter (or lard or Crisco) into flour until it’s totally incorporated, then rolling it out on a chilled marble slab or your counter. Eeewww!!! If you hate touching greasy things like I do, much less cleaning up a floury, greasy counter, making piecrust is not for you. (This is also why I don’t buy delicious, locally made rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies: I’m a vegetarian, and the crusts are all made with lard.)

Then, the recipes all had you cut up the rhubarb and strawberries, mix them with a cup of sugar, dump in flour or cornstarch to thicken the filling, and dump it raw into the piecrust before topping it with the second piecrust or latticing and baking it. Everyone warned that, without the thickening flour or cornstarch, the juices would destroy the bottom crust.

At this point, I decided that I was going to create my own recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household that considered the addition of flour or cornstarch as a thickener was simply blasphemy. Either one drastically degraded the flavor and texture of any food—soup, gravy, sauce, macaroni and cheese, you name it—to which it was added. No flour-or cornstarch-enhanced recipe ever passed our lips. Instead, our home rule was to use top-quality ingredients like cream and butter and simply take the time to cook them to the proper consistency.

So we stopped at the grocery and I asked OFB if he’d prefer a standard, Graham-cracker, or shortbread crust (all ready-made and pressed into their aluminum pans in the baking aisle). OFB chose a Keebler shortbread crust. Sounded good to me.

Once home, I chopped the rhubarb stalks (rhubarb leaves and roots are poisonous, only the stalks are safe to eat) and put them in a heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens) with a little water to keep them from sticking and burning as they cooked. Then I got out that bag of runny, yucky strawberries and totally grossed myself out by pulling off the stems and then chopping them and adding them to the rhubarb. When I’d finally chopped them all, I poured the juice into the pot as well. I also chopped some of the fresh strawberries we’d bought and added them.

As the rhubarb and strawberries cooked down, I added a ten-ounce jar of rhubarb jam to both intensify the flavor and thicken the filling. You could add strawberry jam if you wanted, but then you’d totally overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Or you could add apricot preserves or apple jelly or even marmalade or what have you, but you’d definitely be changing the flavor.

Everything cooked down perfectly into a rich, thick, jammy pie filling, full of fresh fruit and with no yucky thickeners. I was very happy, but by that point, I was also very tired. So I asked OFB if he would spoon the filling into the shortbread crust and put it in the fridge while I got ready for bed. HUGE mistake, as I found out the next morning. OFB admitted that he’d put the filling in the crust, then attempted to pick up the aluminum-foil pan, at which point it had apparently folded in on itself and distributed a supernova of shortbread crumbs into the filling.

I still can’t imagine why this could have happened. That the crust might have broken in half is one thing; that it imploded all over the filling is implausible to me, yet, in the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The results of my wonderful pie now looked like vomit. I was devastated. I can’t eat something this gross, so I’ve made OFB swear that he’ll eat it with ice cream and whipped cream.

Before writing this post, I stuck a finger into the filling to make sure it actually tasted good and wasn’t gummy. And yes, make this and you’ll be so very, very happy: It’s delicious, fruity, fresh, and just the right texture, juicy but not runny. But if you make it, do what I’ll do next time: Put the crust and aluminum base on a plate before filling the crust, and put the plate into the fridge along with the plate so it can all set.

Fans of rhubarb, rejoice! And don’t forget that Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.

‘Til next time,

Silence

* I’ve only found one source of rhubarb jam, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA. Fortunately, you can order it online at http://www.kitchenkettle.com or call to order at 1-800-717-6198.

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