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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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Anyone for rhubarb pizza? May 10, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. When our friend Ben and I first moved to Pennsylvania, we had never tasted rhubarb. We didn’t know anyone who grew it or even ate it. But around here, rhubarb is a popular early-season treat. At local farmers’ markets, Amish and Mennonite women sell rhubarb cake, rhubarb muffins, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb pie, rhubarb custard pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, strawberry-rhubarb jam, and rhubarb jam. It took us a while to work up the nerve to try it, but we figured if it was that popular, there had to be something good about it. Now we love rhubarb’s distinctive tart, tangy taste.

But I had no idea that rhubarb could also be used in savory dishes until OFB and I were at the nearby Emmaus Farmers’ Market a couple of years ago and I saw one stand displaying the plump red stalks. I drifted over to check them out. A woman was asking the farmer how to cook them, and he was explaining. Then he said, “But I like to eat them raw. I just cut them in pieces and eat them with salt.” I was saying that I’d never heard of that when his partner turned around and said “One couple buys our rhubarb and uses it to make rhubarb martinis.”

Oh, wow. I could see the possibilities! I could see rhubarb used instead of celery as a crudite with cream-cheese filling, the beautiful red stalks making a stunning contrast to the cream cheese. And how about rhubarb chutney or, say, a rhubarb margarita? Rhubarb jam might be the perfect glaze on roast pork or chicken, and strawberry-rhubarb jam could be used in a marinade or barbecue sauce.

But my imagination pales compared to the creative genius of the area’s #1 rhubarb fanatic, as I discovered yesterday in a profile of him in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. (Check it out at www.themorningcall.com; look for “Rhubarb’s No.1 Fan.”) “It’s free. It’s in the backyard. I might as well use it,” explains Joe Sosta, the subject of the profile.

And use it he does, putting raw rhubarb on salads (again, chopped like celery), on a peanut-butter-smeared rice cake, or as a topping (with cinnamon) for sundaes. Mr. Sosta also includes rhubarb in stir-fries and tops eggs with sauteed rhubarb and mushrooms. But his most astonishing creation is the rhubarb pizza. 

Mr. Sosta doesn’t actually make his rhubarb pizzas. He takes the chopped raw rhubarb down to his local pizza joint and asks them to spread it on the pizza on top of the tomato sauce but under the cheese. Your local pizza parlor might not be so accomodating, but “semi-homemade” pizzas are now so easy to make at home that I’d be tempted to try a variation on Mr. Sosta’s creation.

I’d start with a whole-wheat pizza crust, spray or brush it lightly with olive oil, and bake it until almost-crisp. Meanwhile, I’d sautee chopped rhubarb, mushrooms, yellow bell pepper, and sweet onion (like Vidalia or Walla Walla) in extra-virgin olive oil until the mushrooms release their juices and the onion clarifies, adding salt, basil, and cracked black pepper to taste. (Leave out the basil if you want more rhubarb flavor to come through.) I’d add a splash of balsamic vinegar and cook until the liquid has evaporated, then top the pizza crust with the sauteed veggies and run it back into the stove until the crust is fully crisped, or top with mozarella and cook until the cheese melts. Slice, and serve with a salad, preferably with chopped raw rhubarb. 

I can see chopped rhubarb on one of those so-called Hawai’ian pizzas with pineapple and Canadian bacon, too. (In case you’re wondering why Canadian bacon would feature in a Hawai’ian pizza, apparently native Hawai’ians are actually addicted to SPAM. I can only assume that some cunning marketer decided that Canadian bacon would be a more respectable substitute.) 

I can also see chopped rhubarb subbing for celery in Waldorf and potato salads. Or for currants in scones or raisins in cinnamon-raisin bread. One thing is certain: I’ll be heading to our local farmers’ market in search of fresh rhubarb stems tomorrow. OFB, look out!  

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

My favorite rhubarb pie. May 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, Uncategorized.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s rhubarb season here in scenic PA, and our friend Ben and I have been making the most of it by visiting the local Amish and Mennonite farm stands in search of rhubarb pie. Coming from the South, rhubarb was an acquired taste for us, but once we worked up the nerve to try it, we came to love its distinctive tangy-tart flavor.

Rhubarb is very popular in our area, and you can even find pies and baked goods made from the old-time green-stemmed varieties, which are reputed to be far more flavorful than the red-stemmed rhubarb which is so popular now. You can find strawberry-rhubarb pies at practically any farm stand and farmers’ market here, some with elaborately latticed top crusts, others with an oatmeal crumb topping. (Both are good.) Rarely, I’ll find a plain rhubarb pie—no strawberries—which I like better. But my favorite rhubarb pie is rhubarb custard pie. The tangy rhubarb and the sweet custard make a delightful combination.

Looking through my collection of area cookbooks for a rhubarb custard pie recipe to share with you, I decided that the one in The Palm Schwenkfelder Church Cookbook had too much flour and too little milk. The Kutztown Area Historical Society Commemorative Cookbook also failed me—the rhubarb pie recipe it featured included red Jell-O (eeewwww)!

Fortunately, the recipe in Boyertown Area Cookery looks more promising. It still uses flour, which I’d avoid, simply cooking the pie a bit longer to get the right thickness without the floury undertaste, and it doesn’t add vanilla to the custard, which I would. But it looks tasty and easy to prepare, so here’s the recipe, just as it was submitted by Cora Hasson. Try it, I hope you’ll like it!

                      Rhubarb Custard Pie

Stew rhubarb, using as little water as possible, until soft and mushy. (Do not add sugar.)

1 1/4 cups stewed rhubarb

2 eggs

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

Beat eggs and sugar together then add remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Pour into a pastry-lined 8-inch pie plate. Bake at 450 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, then at 350 degrees until done. A little nutmeg or cinnamon can be added. If you want to use leftover stewed rhubarb that has been sweetened, use less sugar.

It’s only appropriate that the beloved “pie plant” is so popular in Pennsylvania, since rhubarb was introduced to America by none other than the great Benjamin Franklin, our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, in 1772. (He’d apparently taken a fancy to it in England.) So thank the good Doctor Franklin and treat yourself to a slice of rhubarb pie!

                     ‘Til next time,

                                      Silence

Is it safe to eat rhubarb pie when you’re pregnant? June 22, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This perplexing query came in to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, this morning. I had never heard of rhubarb having an effect on pregnancy, and have been cheerfully posting rhubarb-related recipes, so of course, I wanted to know what prompted this question. Heading to Google provided a bit of enlightenment. Here’s what I found:

Hopefully, everyone already knows better than to eat the poisonous leaves of the rhubarb plant, which aren’t safe to eat whether you’re pregnant or not. The roots are used in herbal medicine, but it’s best to avoid them during pregnancy as well, and without considerable effort, you’re unlikely to cross paths with them, anyway.

The parts of rhubarb that are used to make rhubarb pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, rhubarb custard pie, and all other rhubarb dishes are the thick, usually red, succulent leaf stems, with the leaves themselves stripped away and composted or discarded. Are the stems safe to eat when you’re pregnant? Yes, they are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re enjoyable, even if you normally love stewed rhubarb, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb pie, and the like.

Here’s why: Rhubarb stems have high levels of oxalic acid (potassium oxalate), which can aggravate gout symptoms (unlikely to be an issue for pregnant women) and cause urinary tract irritation. Given the bladder issues pregnant women experience as their swelling uteruses press harder and harder on their bladders, avoiding anything that could cause urinary tract irritation makes excellent sense. Numerous women reported heartburn symptoms after eating various forms of rhubarb while pregnant as well.

So okay, rhubarb isn’t going to kill you, unless you start eating the leaves. But why subject yourself to possible misery for no good reason? Even if you love strawberry-rhubarb pie, you can always freeze strawberries and chopped rhubarb and make yourself a pie once your baby comes home. Or, er, freeze the whole pie? I think it would definitely be worth the wait.

        ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

New ways to eat rhubarb. June 9, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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8 comments

Silence Dogood here. When our friend Ben and I first moved to Pennsylvania, we had never tasted rhubarb. We didn’t know anyone who grew it or even ate it. But around here, rhubarb is a popular early-season treat. At local farmers’ markets, Amish and Mennonite women sell rhubarb cake, rhubarb muffins, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, strawberry-rhubarb jam, and rhubarb jam. It took us a while to work up the nerve to try it, but we figured if it was that popular, there had to be something good about it. Now we love rhubarb’s distinctive tart, tangy taste.

So when OFB, our puppy Shiloh and I were at the nearby Emmaus Farmers’ Market on Sunday and I saw one stand displaying the plump red stalks, I drifted over to check them out. A woman was asking the farmer how to cook them, and he was explaining. Then he said, “But I like to eat them raw. I just cut them in pieces and eat them with salt.” I was saying that I’d never heard of that when his partner turned around and said “One couple buys our rhubarb and uses it to make rhubarb martinis.”

Raw rhubarb. Rhubarb martinis. Two new ways of using rhubarb in one day! I confess that I haven’t yet set out the rhubarb on our raw veggie platter. And Ben and I don’t like vodka, so I haven’t tried the martinis, either. But rhubarb margaritas… hmmm…

One thing I would like to try is making a rhubarb upside-down cake. I think that could be delicious!

So, how do you eat (or drink!) rhubarb? Do you have any rhubarb recipes up your sleeve? I’d love to hear about them!

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence