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How to enjoy rhubarb season: some lore and two recipes

If you’re a seasonal eater here on the perpetually soggy East Coast, spring means three things: fiddleheads, asparagus, and rhubarb.

I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks singing the praises of each member of this marvellous trio in turn, mainly in the form of favourite recipes. I’ll start with the ‘barb since it’s the only one that’s visible in my garden right now.

Rhubarb is a funny bird: it’s rare to eat just the stalk of something and discard the leaves (we do this with sugar cane, too). It’s tart enough to make you pucker: I cringed when my two-year-old pulled a stalk out of the ground one spring, broke it in half, and started munching on it. He was amazingly unfazed—this kid sucks on lemon wedges for fun. “Woo-bahb,” he pronounced with satisfaction between bites.

Like citrus, rhubarb is high in vitamin C; it’s also moderately high in potassium. It’s been consumed for medicinal (mostly laxative) purposes in China and parts of Asia for thousands of years.

The rhubarb plant’s a heavy feeder—it loves hanging out near manure piles and around compost heaps. The leaves from these plants are the size of elephant ears.

On a bike ride along the old railbed near our cottage a few years ago, we discovered a lush patch of enormous rhubarb growing on the grounds of an old farmstead; I stuffed the giant stalks into my backpack and into the back of the bike trailer for the freezer, wondering somewhat suspiciously what caused the massive growth: an old septic field? Compost pile? Hopefully not a cemetery….

If you’re on a rhubarb watch on your own property right now, I send you these favourite recipes to try when the time comes:

 

Rhubarb Meringue Pie

This recipe shared space on a page in my grandmother’s recipe book with another rhubarb pie that called for a crumb topping. Both are excellent and custardy, but I like this one a little bit more… if you have a few frozen strawberries lingering in your freezer, you could add them to the rhubarb to make up the three cups of fruit the recipe calls for.

3 cups chopped rhubarb

1 cup white sugar

3 tablespoons white flour

2 tablespoons butter

2 egg yolks

1 unbaked pie crust

Meringue topping:

2 egg whites

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon salt

 

In a large bowl, combine rhubarb. Sugar, flour, and butter. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and stir into rhubarb mixture. Add to pie shell and bake in 425 degree F oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 deg F and bake 30 minutes more. Remove from oven and cool to lukewarm.

In another large bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff (3-5 minutes). Gradually beat in sugar. Add water, vanilla and salt. Beat until very stiff, shiny peaks form. Spread meringue over pie, making sure it touches pastry edges. Bake 10-12 minutes in a 375 degree oven. (You’ll be adjusting your oven dial a fair bit for this recipe!)

 

Orange-Rhubarb Butter: from Marisa McClellan’s canning Bible, Food In Jars.

Marisa McClellan is the queen of all things jammed, jellied, relished, and otherwise canned. She’s written a few canning cookbooks now, and her recipes never disappoint. I love the tart and refreshing notes in this marriage of flavours; superb on toast, you can also use this butter as a marinade for poultry.

8 cups chopped rhubarb

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups orange juice

 

Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to low and let it keep cooking, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Keep this up for an hour, until the butter has thickened.

While it’s cooking, prepare a boiling water bath with 2 1-pint (500 mL) jars. Put a rack in the saucepan and put jars on top. Cover them with water and bring to a boil. Put your canning lids in a smaller saucepan, cover with water, and bring them to a low boil. (If you have a magnetic wand handy, that’s the easiest way to get them out of the hot water).

When your butter has finished cooking, remove jars from canning pot (pour the water back into the pot as you remove them) and ladle hot butter into them, allowing at least ½ inch headroom. Wipe the rims, apply lids and screwbands, and process in the boiling water bath for 15 minutes.