Everything that looks like celery in this post is really rhubarb. The kind of rhubarb that grows in our neck of the woods, southwestern Appalachian North Carolina, is way more green than red. If it gets happy in the garden spot you give it, the return will be many months of bountiful slender green stalks with a faint blush of red at the base. A couple of good things to know if you are growing your own–don’t let it flower and don’t eat the leaves. If allowed to bloom the energy goes into producing that flower instead of stems, and your rhubarb season is effectively over. The leaves are full of oxalic acid at a level to cause serious stomach upset. Just cut them off and throw in the compost.
Rhubarb adds a serious tart and tangy note to whatever you serve it with. A true dessert companion to strawberries, raspberries or cherries, I believe it needs some sweetening to make it agreeable. An old timey name for it is pie plant. It makes delicious pies. Rhubarb can be stewed and served like applesauce, caramelized by roasting on a sheet pan in the oven with a dusting of sugar, made into marmalade or chutney, chopped and added to vanilla cake batter for a moist result or used to fill a fruit crisp with an oaty topping.
In Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise, I ate it caramelized in the bottom of a dish of crème brulee. A spoon dipped through the custardy top scraped across a surprise filling of soft tart fruit.
In my community of Brasstown, I teach jam making and preserving classes at the 90-year-old John C Campbell Folk School. I have included rhubarb from the Folk School’s organic garden in many recipes. Usually during a week of jam making, I include lessons on how to make jam tarts and pie fillings. In the spring, we make this fabulous pie with some of our local fruit.
A rhubarb marmalade is stirred into a slurry of cornstarch and strawberries, cooked slightly and then folded into a bowl of sliced fresh strawberries. A rich butter pastry is blind baked in a pie pan until completely crisp and golden. Then the mixture of cooked and uncooked fruit is turned into the baked and cooled crust. Top it with freshly whipped cream and enjoy the best pie of spring.
Rhubarb Marmalade Makes 6-8 8oz jars Wash trim and cut into 1” pieces 3 lbs rhubarb In a non-reactive bowl ( ceramic or glass) place the rhubarb along with 2 ½ lbs sugar juice and zest of 3 oranges Stir together the mixture gently. Cover with plastic wrap or an overturned plate and let rest in a cool place two days but not more than three.
Strain the juice into a jam pan and reserve the fruit. Boil juice until just starting to jell. This would be approaching 220F on a candy or instant read thermometer. Add fruit and continue to cook a few more minutes. When just jelling, take off heat and let sit for 5-6 minutes. This will help distribute the fruit evenly in jars. Fill 8oz glass canning jars allowing ¼ “ headspace. Water bath can for 5-8 minutes for a long shelf life. Otherwise store marmalade in the refrigerator. Fresh Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Prepare the pastry for a 9” single crust pie. Line the pie pan with the pastry and crimp the crust. Chill the pastry for 15 minutes while preheating the oven to 400F. Cover the pastry with parchment paper and fill with dried beans. Bake the pastry for 10 minutes with the beans in place. Remove the beans and the paper and continue baking until the crust is golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Cool the crust. Meanwhile, stir together in a heavy sauce pan 1 cup rhubarb marmalade * 1 cup crushed strawberries 3 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water Cook and stir this mixture together until it comes to a boil and
cook for exactly one minute after it boils. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Wash, dry well and slice 4 cups fresh strawberries Stir the sliced strawberries into the cooled rhubarb mixture. Pile into the prepared pie crust. Cut pie into 8 pieces and serve with sweetened whipped heavy cream.
* To substitute for the rhubarb marmalade, gently cook together 2 cups chopped fresh rhubarb with ½ cup sugar until reduced and saucy about 10-15 minutes. Do not add water. Do not allow to burn. Proceed with crushed strawberries and corn starch as directed. Taste the mixture and add a bit more sugar if needed.