No matter what the weather, rhubarb makes a pie great


ALL THE RAIN we have been getting lately is, according to folk wisdom, "good for the rhubarb." But on the other hand, the sunshine is also said to be "good for the rhubarb." There is probably a "cloudy-days-are-good-for-the-rhubarb" contingent as well.

That is the way it is with fans of the weird red stalks. As long as the plant is pushing up out of the ground, they are happy.

Rhubarb has many admirers. Both fruit and vegetable lovers claim it as one of their own. The ancient Greeks called it "the vegetable of the barbarians." They were referring to those rough foreigners who lived beyond the Volga (or Rha) River.

Moreover, in his new book "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields" (Broadway Books, 1998) John Shields describes rhubarb as a "misunderstood vegetable," a relative of the buckwheat family.

Yet in her new book, "Great Pies and Tarts," Carole Walter (Clarkson Potter, 1998) claims the courts have declared that rhubarb is a fruit.

"In a 1947 legal case at U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York," Walter writes, "it was ruled that since rhubarb was normally prepared as a fruit, it should henceforth be classied as a fruit."

I guess this means that you are defined by the company you keep, at least in Buffalo.

Despite the disagreement about what food group it belongs to, there is little dispute that rhubarb makes a great pie filling. A pie made with rhubarb and strawberries usually draws fork carriers not only from the fruit and vegetable camps, but also from the ranks of dessert lovers.

One of our kids is a rhubarb zealot. The other night when our family was sitting around the kitchen table discussing our favorite dessert -- a topic frequently discussed at our house --this kid nominated strawberry-rhubarb pie as his choice.

On one level, this nomination surprised me. Rhubarb is tart, even when paired with strawberries. And this kid, 13 years old, like most kids, is normally a fan of sweet desserts. Then I remembered that this kid's grandfather, my dad, also loves rhubarb. The kid had inherited the rhubarb-eating gene from his grandfather.

In science this might be called "rhubarb recessive" behavior. In the kitchen, it means that when my wife makes strawberry-rhubarb pie, as she did recently, the kid can be counted on to polish off two pieces.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie pie dough (see below)

1 1/2 pints strawberries, stemmed

2 cups diced rhubarb

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

sweetened whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Prepare the pastry dough and roll it out to line a 9-inch pie pan. Flute the edge of the shell. Prick the bottom of the shell with a fork. Press aluminum foil into the bottom and sides of the shell and cover foil with dried beans to prevent crust from swelling during baking.

Bake for 8 minutes. Remove the foil and beans and continue to bake until the crust is lightly brown, 10-20 minutes. Cool before filling.

Place half the strawberries in a pot. Mash with a fork or potato masher. Add the rhubarb and 1 cup sugar. Combine the cornstarch, 1/2 cup water, lemon juice and salt in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the cornstarch. Add to the strawberry-rhubarb mixture. Cook over medium heat until the mixture is thick and rhubarb is tender, stirring often.

Halve the remaining strawberries and arrange them in the baked pie shell. Pour the strawberry-rhubarb mixture over the berries on bottom of pie shell, then top with remaining berries. Cover and chill.

Serve topped with whipped cream sweetened with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla for 1 cup of cream.

-- Variation of recipe from "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields" (Broadway Books, 1998, $27.50).

Pie Dough

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

3-4 tablespoons cold water

Sift together the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Work the shortening into the flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender, until the mixture is the consistency of coarse meal. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a fork after each addition. Dough should not be wet, but just moist enough to hold together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before rolling.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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