Growing up in North Dakota, it seemed like everyone had patches of rhubarb in their backyards. It was one of those plants like zucchini, where for a period of time, it seemed you couldn't find enough ways to use it all up. The fact that I now go to Whole Foods to buy rhubarb still seems completely bizarre to me - it was just one of those foods that didn't come from a store!
As children, the elephant ear leaves were the perfect size to lie in the grass under a warm sun and pretend to be Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, fanned by her minions (i.e., a younger sibling you talked into playing along with your Egyptian drama).
I also have memories of sitting outside on summer days licking the end of a raw stalk and dipping it in a bowl of sugar before chomping away.....for reals people. Anyone else do that?
This past weekend, as we dropped off a soccer buddy of our son Henry after a game, I was excited to see 2 enormous rhubarb patches in his front yard as we pulled into the driveway. I had planned to go to the store for some later that day but his dad graciously shared a big armful of beautiful stalks with me to take home. (I love the feeling of sharing fresh food with others and it's just as great to be on the receiving end!) He also promised to share some plants come Fall once he thins the patch so we can get our own patch going. Bonus!
No matter where it comes from, fresh rhubarb to me is the signal of warmer days ahead.....usually my first crumble of the Summer, the harbinger of the edible outdoors to come.
So this post is a little celebration of rhubarb with 3 recipes. And in between the recipes I share some of the reasons why rhubarb truly rules. I guarantee you'll be amazed by this humble backyard plant!
The first recipe is for a simple crumble - easy for a weekend brunch or after dinner dessert. I like to throw all the ingredients together while preparing dinner and have it in the oven while we eat - smells delicious and it's ready to go once the plates are cleared!
4 cups rhubarb, diced
4 cups strawberries, hulled and halved (~1 and 1/2 lbs)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
Mix ingredients together and put in 8x8 or 9x6 baking dish.
12 tbsp (stick and a half) cold butter
Mix crumble dry ingredients and cut in butter (using pastry blender or food processor) until mixture in crumbles. Sprinkle crumble mixture on top of fruit.
Did you know rhubarb used to be a valuable commodity right up there with silk, pearls, spices, and all the other high end stuff that traveled along the Silk Road from China to Europe? The ground root was extremely valuable as a medicinal digestive and would supposedly fix all kinds of gastrointestinal disorders. China and Russia used to fight over distribution rights and you had to get a special permit from them to obtain it. In fact, when Chinese emperors and Russian czars had a border dispute, withholding rhubarb was actually China's biggest weapon! Hey - after hearing this factoid you'll remember to think of making a rhubarb crumble whenever you hear your kids shout 'Marco!' 'Polo!' in the pool this summer, right?? =)
Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb Chutney
The second recipe is a way to work rhubarb into your main dish - a wonderful basting and chutney sauce for grilled pork tenderloin (I got a 3 out of 4 kid approval for this one!).
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp Worcester sauce
Soften onion in a saucepan in olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Add in all other ingredients and simmer until rhubarb soft and sauce thickens.
For pork loin, soak in salt/sugar brine bath (I use 1 tbsp salt and 1/8 cup sugar and soak them in water bath in a Tupperware marinade container that I can turn upside down) for at least an hour or so. Remove from brine, rinse and pat dry.
Baste tenderloins with the rhubarb sauce while on the grill (I baste when I first put on the grill, do ~5 min each side before turning, basting in between, up to 20 min total). Love to have a dark, crusty almost burnt looking outside. Don't worry - the brine helps keep the inside tender and juicy. Let loin rest 5 minutes before slicing. Serve remaining chutney in a bowl alongside meat.
Even though often paired with different fruits in many desserts and jams, did you know rhubarb is not a fruit but actually a vegetable? It's also a flow battery. What what??
Flow batteries are a different kind of battery that use liquids (rather than metals) to hold a charge. Rhubarb contains a quinone compound capable of carrying an electric charge. Harvard researchers have actually built and tested a flow battery using a liquid containing a compound almost identical to the quinone found in rhubarb. Another reason to get that patch of rhubarb growing in your backyard....maybe we'll be hooking them up to solar panels on our roof in the future??
The third recipe is my favorite of all - strawberry rhubarb pie. It takes a few extra steps to make sure you don't get a runny pie from all the rhubarb juices but always well worth the effort!
This is a recipe I definitely credit to America's Test Kitchen as they've figured out the runny pie issue and have the absolute best pie crust method (secret ingredient: vodka!)
4 cups chopped rhubarb (~2 lbs)
1 lb strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
If you've ever made a strawberry rhubarb pie, you know the biggest problem is preventing a runny pie from all the juice of the rhubarb. To avoid, combine the rhubarb and the sugar in a bowl and microwave it for a minute or two, stir it, and then let it sit for 30 minutes or so. This will allow the rhubarb to lose some of its juices.
Put a strainer over a saucepan on the stove and pour the rhubarb mixture into the strainer allowing all the liquid to drain into the saucepan. Set the rhubarb aside. Add half the strawberries to the liquid in the saucepan and heat over medium high heat until sauce reduces (~10-15 min). Add cornstarch to the sauce and then mix with the rhubarb and rest of strawberries. Stir to combine.
For the pie crust, I absolutely love the America's Test Kitchen recipe that uses vodka in the recipe - it makes the dough moist and easy to roll out but then evaporates during cooking leaving a lovely flaky crust.
Combine 2 1/2 cups flour, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, then cut in 12 tbsp butter (cut into small pieces and chilled) and 1/2 cup Crisco (cut into pieces) into the dry ingredients. Add 1/4 cup chilled vodka and 1/4 cup cold water and press dough together until it holds. Divide dough in half and wrap each half in plastic and chill for at least an hour.
Let them thaw ~10 minutes on the counter before rolling out. Roll out the 2 balls of dough placing one in the pie plate. Add the filling and cover with the other rolled out dough pinching the edges together securely. I like to create little leaves that line the outer edge of the pie with the extra pie dough. Easy to cut out and just draw the lines for a leaf design with a dull knife (Annalise helping me!)
Cut venting slits in the top crust and brush the surface with water. Sprinkle 2-3 tbsp sugar on the wet crust to create the nice carmel color once baked. Bake at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes, then turn down to 375 degrees and bake 40 minutes longer. Keep an eye on it to prevent browning too fast on top - I cover the top or edges with aluminum foil or a pie edger until the last half of baking.
Let cool 2 hours or even better overnight so it sets up more firmly before serving. Delish!