There it is, my humble pie plant, insistent upon telling me it’s spring even as, at this writing, snowflakes are falling on its big, green elephant-ear leaves.
I hadn’t realized, until I stood over my already abundant rhubarb, how much I rely on finding it there, year after year, quietly doing its job in spite of my neglect and indifference.
While I’m poring over seed catalogs, making lists of all the things I’d love to plant, tend and, hopefully, harvest for eating, the rhubarb is already out there in the back yard, ready and waiting. And as I go back over those lists, crossing out the many items I won’t plant because I know they’ll turn into deer fodder, the rhubarb grows thicker, stronger, and defies even the snails that will show up as soon as the ground warms.
In the Midwest, where my husband grew up, rhubarb was always called “pie plant,” almost certainly because that’s the only thing most women did with rhubarb at that time. My great-grandmothers, grandmothers and my mother always made rhubarb pies early in the spring, when the rhubarb was already abundant. The only variation was an occasional rhubarb crisp rather than pie, a slight change, but always my preference from earliest memory.
It wasn’t until I was a young wife with two small children and one very large yard with several flourishing rhubarb plants that I discovered, through necessity, how many wonderful things one could do with rhubarb besides turn it into pie. I began with rhubarb jam, still a yearly event over all these years, and went on to chutneys, salsas, cakes, tortes, sorbet, puddings, compotes, sauces, salad, even soup and wine, although those uses are way down on my “things to do with rhubarb” list.
Rhubarb stalks contain ingredients with long names that are medicinally used for their cathartic effect; i.e., rhubarb can be considered a good laxative if simply turned into rhubarb sauce. The leaves, however, contain oxalic acid, toxic to many creatures, including humans, although it would take about 8 pounds of leaves to make a lethal dose. The oxalic acid does, however, keep the deer from eating my rhubarb, and that’s one of the many reasons why I do so love my pie plant.
Even though it’s hard to believe, right now, that spring is here, my humble pie plant is telling me otherwise. Rhubarb crisp is on the menu, tonight, and I’m sure better weather is just around the corner.
Let’s begin with a smooth, creamy, delicious rhubarb cream; it’s an all-purpose, decadent rhubarb delight that could be used in a number of ways. Make it a day ahead, refrigerate and use over warm gingerbread, in between layers of cake (lemon, strawberry, etc.) or layers of meringue with fresh strawberries — once you try it, you’ll think of any number of ways to use it.
2 cups of ½-inch pieces of fresh rhubarb
¾ cup hulled, halved strawberries
½ cup, plus 1/3 cup sugar (see instructions)
¼ cup water
2 T. fresh lemon juice
5 large egg yolks
1 cup chilled whipping cream
½ t. vanilla extract
Combine rhubarb, strawberries, ½ cup sugar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer until rhubarb is very tender, about 15 min. Puree mixture in a food processor, then chill until cold, about an hour.
Whisk yolks and 1/3 cup sugar in a large metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (don’t let bowl touch water). Whisk until mixture thickens and an instant-read thermometer hits 140 for 3 min., probably about 7-8 min. total. Chill mixture until cool (15-20 min.), then gently fold the rhubarb mixture into the yolk mixture.
Using an electric hand mixer, beat the whipping cream and vanilla in another large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold the cream into the rhubarb mixture in two additions. Use between cake layers, over scones, gingerbread, lemon cake squares, on cheesecake, bread pudding — any warm, comforting dessert you come up with.
I love fruit crisps, but this one I served a few years ago, and got the recipe for, combined a fall fruit (apples) with the first of spring fruit (rhubarb), two of my favorites to make this easy (thanks to phyllo), but impressive, dessert.
6 cups sliced rhubarb
1 apple (gala or Fuji, for example) cored and diced (about 1 cup)
2/3 cup sugar
3 T. instant tapioca
1 T. orange juice
1 ½ t. pumpkin pie spice
6-8 sheets phyllo dough
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
6-8 t. sugar
3 T. sliced almonds
2 T. turbinado sugar
Combine rhubarb, apple, 2/3 cup sugar, tapioca, orange juice and pie spice in a large bowl. Mix well and let stand 15 min., stirring occasionally. Taste and add a bit more sugar if too tart. Pour fruit into a 9-inch pie plate.
Place a sheet of phyllo on a flat surface (cover other sheets with a damp paper towel to keep from drying). Lightly brush phyllo sheet with butter and sprinkle with 1 t. sugar. Roll into a loose tube about 2 inches in diameter. Repeat with remaining phyllo sheets.
Starting at outer edge of pie, lightly place phyllo tubes end to end in a spiral or concentric pattern around the pie. Drizzle any remaining butter over the phyllo and sprinkle with almonds and turbinado sugar.
Bake crisp in a preheated 350 degree oven until golden brown, about 1 hr. Let the crisp cool for about 15 min. before serving. If desired, garnish with a few sliced, fresh strawberries and/or sliced almonds. Serves 6-8.