Rhubarb is one of those confusing plants: it is technically a vegetable, just like tomatoes are technically fruit.
Regardless of botany, rhubarb is considered a fruit in the kitchen and is the first fruit to emerge from winter’s cold blanket in Canada. As soon as the stalks are 10″ or longer, you can begin to cut some stalks; you should stop harvesting in full summer because the toxic oxalic acid found in the leaves starts seeping into the red stems.
A couple years ago, the Globe and Mail published a terrific story about forced winter rhubarb in Canada, which, coincidentally, I had found for the first time at a grocery store. Writer Chris Nuttall-Smith informs us that “until the 1960s, it was a common sight in grocery stores and green markets across much of Canada; there were more than 60 winter-rhubarb growers in Ontario alone.” That’s down to just a few now, including the French family farm in Melanchon, Ontario: a combination of high heating costs (the rhubarb is forced in dark, heated barns) and the proliferation of imported fruits in supermarkets drove down production. The story says winter rhubarb is also available in late winter/early spring in B.C. but it comes mostly from the northwest U.S.
This “winter rhubarb” is sweeter than rhubarb grown outdoors and is quite beautiful, with pink-red stems and a yellow-lime leaf. If you can find some before the stuff from the ground grows tall enough to cut, grab it and start baking.
To celebrate this harbinger of spring, here are my two go-to rhubarb dessert recipes — vegetable classification notwithstanding.
Rhubarb Meringue Pie
from the Waterloo County Cook Book by Marcella Calarco
In an undated newspaper clipping I have from my mother’s collection, Calarco says this recipe “was one of many given to me by my mother who was a terrific cook … Her rhubarb pie was always sensational!”
One nine-inch unbaked pastry shell
Three cups diced rhubarb
One cup brown sugar
Three tablespoons butter, room temperature
Three tablespoons flour
Three eggs, separated
Three teaspoons sugar
Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
Pour boiling water over rhubarb; let stand for five minutes. Drain.
Combine brown sugar, butter, and flour until crumbly. Add egg yolks; mix well, Mix with rhubarb and pour mixture into pie shell.
Bake in the preheated 425 F oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and continue baking an addition 30 minutes.
To make meringue, beat the three egg whites until stiff. Gradually add the three teaspoons of sugar, beating constantly. Meringue is done when all the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites hold stiff peaks.
Remove pie from oven: Swirl meringue over pie and immediately return to a 300 F oven. Bake until meringue is a golden brown (approximately 15 minutes).
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Rhubarb Crumble (or Crisp); Pandowdy or Cobbler?
“Crumble” is the American and “Crisp” is the British name for a crumbly topping, often with oats, flour and sugar, sprinkled on top of fruit that’s then baked.
I have a recipe from a friend whose father ran a bakery in Timmins, Ontario for many years that is labelled Rhubarb “Pandowdy” but, when I looked up the ingredients in this recipe, it turns out it’s really a cobbler —more of a biscuit dough than a crust dough, which in a pandowdy is cut up in strips or other shapes and laid over the fruit. In this “pandowdy”, you’re supposed to drop the dough (which has baking powder in it) in spoon-fulls onto the fruit. That’s a cobbler, in most books.
Many rhubarb recipes these days counteract the rhubarb tartness by mixing it with raspberries, strawberries, or apples. However, rhubarb comes into season earlier than these fruits so, if you want an authentic spring taste, be prepared for a bit of refreshing sour in your tea treat or dessert.
Mary Teahen’s Rhubarb Crumble
This handwritten recipe gives no origin and it is a “double crumble” — a crust-like layering of the crumble on bottom, followed by fruit and more crumble on top.
4 cups diced rhubarb
1 cup white sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
3/4 cup rolled oats
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Heat oven to 350. F
In a saucepan, combine and cook water, white sugar, and cornstarch until thick and clear, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla, then set aside.
In a bowl mix the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter. Cut with pastry blender or knives until well mixed and crumbly.
Press 2/3 of the crumble into a greased 9″x9″ pan. Add the rhubarb and pour the sugar mixture on top. Finish by adding remaining crumble on top. Bake for one hour at 350 F. and serve warm.
Main photo of winter (forced) rhubarb: Kelley Teahen