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Thursday, May 23, 2019 12:01 am

Rhubarb, beyond pie


Known by old-timers as “pie plant,” rhubarb is one of the first local produce offerings of the season. The ruby red stalks yield to a soft delicious pulp when baked or stewed and have a distinctive tart, slightly musky flavor. The Memorial Day cookouts of my childhood were always capped off with a wedge of straight-up rhubarb pie. Strawberry rhubarb pie was verboten in my household, so deep was our love of the pure, unadulterated flavor of this distinctly Midwestern plant. My great-grandmother would often have rhubarb sauce for breakfast, spooning it out of a dish alongside a piece of buttered toast.

Although commonly used in the preparation of sweet dishes and desserts, rhubarb is technically a vegetable. It is best suited to northern climates as it requires a period of cold-induced winter dormancy to thrive, similar to tulips and lilacs. With showy crimson stalks and huge, vivid leaves, rhubarb is pretty enough to plant in a flowerbed. Rhubarb’s tart flavor comes from oaxalic acid (the compound in spinach that can sometimes make teeth feel ‘squeaky’). The high concentration of oaxalic acid in the leaves can be toxic, so only the stems of the plant should be eaten.

When cooked, rhubarb has a consistency that makes it wonderful for use in pies and jams. Fresh berries can be folded into cooked and cooled rhubarb pie filling. (Check out my recipe for fresh blueberry pie here: https://illinoistimes.com/article-20202-fresh-blueberry-pie.html). Diced rhubarb forms the base of a beautiful and scrumptious upside-down cake or crumble, or can be incorporated into muffins, scones or coffee cake. Basic rhubarb sauce can be swirled into cheesecake, used to make drinks like homemade sodas or rhubarb bellinis, or used as a base in a myriad of savory preparations.

“My family has always eaten it raw, dipped in a little bit of sugar or salt. That’s how my grandpa taught me to eat it,” Dale Jefferies, Jr. told me during a recent visit to his family’s farm stand located just off of Rt. 29 in Springfield. The Jefferies have been growing been growing produce for market on their family farm since the 1930s. “This rhubarb came from a patch that’s about 25 years old. That’s how you get really nice thick, bright red stalks,” he explained. Rhubarb is slow to take off and the best-eating rhubarb comes from well established, mature plants. Jefferies Orchard also sells rhubarb plants for those interested in growing their own. “It’s important not to cut rhubarb for the first couple of years after planting,” Jefferies pointed out. This allows the plant to develop a strong, thriving root structure. Plant rhubarb in a spot with full sun and good drainage. They are heavy feeders and therefore benefit from the addition of rich compost when planting.
It turns out that “pie plant” can do more than just desserts: It shines in a savory context also. Finely diced rhubarb makes for a tangy and surprising take on traditional pico de gallo, and luscious rhubarb sauce can be incorporated into a variety of recipes like salad dressing, chutney and a delicious glaze for grilled pork chops.

Rhubarb sauce
2 ½ cups sliced rhubarb
1/3-1/2 cup sugar, to taste
½ cup water
A tiny pinch of salt
Combine the above ingredients and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture bubbles and thickens, about 10-15 minutes.
Serve warm or chilled over ice cream or pound cake. Press through a fine meshed sieve to use it to make drinks like rhubarb soda, bellinis or margaritas.

Rhubarb margarita

1-2 tablespoons strained rhubarb sauce
2 ounces blanco tequila
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce Cointreau or Grand Marnier
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Pour into a sugar- or salt-rimmed glass if desired, and serve. Makes one cocktail.

Rhubarb vinaigrette
2 tablespoons stained rhubarb sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon water
2 green onions, minced
Juice of one lemon
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil like avocado, olive or canola
Salt, pepper and honey to taste
Combine the strained rhubarb sauce, mustard, water, minced green onion, lemon juice and vinegar in a small mixing bowl. Whisk to combine, then continue whisking as you slowly drizzle in the oil. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and honey. Used to dress a spinach salad or as a unique marinade for chicken or pork.

Rhubarb salsa

1 stalk rhubarb, cut into ¼-inch dice, about 1 cup
½ red onion, finely minced
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice
½ cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons lime juice, to taste
1 jalapeño, seeds removed and minced (optional)
1 teaspoon honey, to taste
Salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well and chill. Serve with chips on on top of grilled meat or fish.

Asparagus and rhubarb stir-fry

2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 pound sliced chicken thighs
1 cup thinly sliced rhubarb
2 cups sliced asparagus, cut into 1 inch lengths
1 cup trimmed snap peas
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest and juice from one orange
1-2 teaspoons honey, to taste
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce, to taste
1/4 cup minced green onion
1/4 cup chopped cashews

In a wok or heavy-bottomed skillet, add one tablespoon of the oil and heat over high heat until it shimmers. Sprinkle the chicken or shrimp with salt, then stir-fry in the hot oil until lightly browned and cooked through. Transfer to a serving bowl and keep warm. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the sliced rhubarb, asparagus and snap peas and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, then add the ginger, garlic and orange zest. Mix together the juice, honey and fish sauce. Add the chicken back into the skillet along with the orange juice mixture. Toss to coat, then top with minced green onion and chopped cashews. Serve with piping hot rice.

Ashley Meyer is a Springfield-based writer, cook and self-described pie fanatic.


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