Rhubarb makes the hot list
I appreciate sour and tart flavors, fortuitous in the middle of Missouri’s May through June rhubarb season. Like pumpkins in the fall or sweet corn in the summer, rhubarb is a harbinger of season. And now this plant of farms and rural kitchens is going haute.
Chefs are making rhubarb a focusing flavor in dishes such as goat cheese panna cotta with rhubarb, rhubarb mousse, and roasted pork shoulder with caramelized garlic, onions and rhubarb. In terms of taste, rhubarb brings a brightening acidity to any dish.
But, I still think of rhubarb and baking. I have a preference for sweets balanced by tartness anyway, coming from a family of chutney makers. One favorite chutney of mine is simply mango, sugar, black mustard seeds, dried red chili and lemon: a medley of taste sensation that brings the whole mouth into the experience. Rhubarb’s flavor profile explains chutney in a way words cannot.
Rhubarb is also at ease in Missouri weather. Consider: Once established, a rhubarb plant needs virtually no tending beyond plenty of water and perhaps a good feeding of fertilizer each year. Plus, how much more simple prep work do you need? Pull a stalk, wash, chop and you’re ready to bake. Luck came our way this year when Cousin Mary sent us Grandma Sanning’s remembered recipe for rhubarb cream pie, but there’s also rhubarb cake, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb muffins and much more. Chop up a few pieces and cook on the stovetop with a little sugar: the sauce works well with bread pudding, or even ice cream. Or, make a chutney out of it, just drop the lemon.
Rhubarb, classified as a vegetable not a fruit, comes in many cultivars and has stalk colors ranging from fetching red to green. Most groceries gravitate towards the red varieties, but for stalky growth and yield, my money’s on the green ones. The robust rhubarb in my back yard is straight-up green, thank you, and makes savory and sweet delicacies bar none. It also looks as if it could take me down if I wrestled with it—the leaves are broad and lush, the stalks taller than my head. That’s partly due to the fact that I neglected to pull them a couple of weeks ago, but still, it makes an impressive stand.
I like the tartness to come through in the finished dish and feel most recipes use far too much sugar. Here is our family’s go-to rhubarb pie recipe, and remember, the more fat in the crust the better (a good idea for crust anytime).
Rhubarb Cream Pie
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 cups sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
4 cups of 1-inch pieces of rhubarb
9-inch pie pastry crust with enough for a lattice top
2 teaspoons butter
Combine the sugar, flour, and nutmeg in a small bowl. In another, larger bowl, slightly beat the eggs and add the sugar mixture. Beat well to mix. Add rhubarb pieces and stir.
Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Fill, dot with 2 teaspoons butter. Top with lattice crust. Flute edge. Bake in hot 400 F oven 50-60 minutes.
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of "Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine" and "Biting Through the Skin," She writes A Spiced Life at the Columbia Daily Tribune.