Wednesday, June 16, 2010


“I got rhubarb!”  That was my husband’s voice on the end of my phone calling in from one of his foraging trips to the Shenandoah Valley. We get a lot of our local produce and other goodies for the Farm to Family bus from small family, often Mennonite, farms there.

Immediately I began planning the rhubarb pie that I would make as soon as I got my hands on it. When most folks think of rhubarb, they think of pie, and in fact, pie plant is its common name. Rhubarb’s debut is heralded with great excitement, as it is a harbinger of spring and the bounty that follows. Along with the appearance of asparagus and strawberries, winter, and the endless reworking of those root vegetables, is finally over.

I eagerly posted that we had RHUBARB! on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and our shoppers, experienced rhubarb bakers, and the curious alike, grab it by the handfuls.

One of our customers pointed at the stalks and asked, “What’s that! I want some!” a common phrase heard in our market and farm bus. I explained it was rhubarb and proceeded to tell her how to make a pie and to tell her what I knew of it, passed down from my mom and other relatives.

Rhubarb is an old-fashioned plant, like peonies and sweet peas, that are the memory of long ago gardens planted by farm women. They are functional as well as beautiful, like those pioneer women who planted them, with strong, sturdy, blushing red and pink stalks, and graceful, full dark green leaves.

I drove my mom North recently, to our family homestead on the Quebec border for her summer visit (where it snowed immediately before and after our trip!) Along the way we saw rhubarb patches near old farm houses as we drove into the deeply rural area near home in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.

Mom and I had a lively discussion of rhubarb which began with remembrance of her mother’s Rhubarb Pie recipe, which is a lovely spring treat and “easy as pie” to make.

We discussed other family favorites as the miles flew by: rhubarb cake, rhubarb crumble, rhubarb cobbler, rhubarb sauce, the addition of strawberries to everything rhubarb (Mom likes her rhubarb unadulterated while I like a little strawberry here and there). Several miles were devoted to the exciting rhubarb ice cream that mom and dad made when I was a small child, taking my turn cranking the old ice cream maker.  It seemed like my arm would fall off, but oh how wonderful that rhubarb ice cream tasted!

As a child I used to love to pick rhubarb and bite into it, so sour my eyes would cross and mouth pucker. The leaves made lovely elf hats for me and my dolls, but I was always careful to avoid eating those leaves, as my mother told me over and over, they were DEADLY POISON!

Avoid those leaves, as they do contain oxalates -- chop them off and put them in compost. Those poisons in rhubarb leaves break down harmlessly during the composting process. Or, make a rhubarb garden spray with those leaves to keep the aphids off your roses.

I’m an eager student of everything plant, and I like to research the uses of plants beyond their culinary delights. Rhubarb was one of those foods from my childhood my father would proclaim  “good for what ails you.”  I’m not sure where he got his education from, probably from his Grandma Settie, but in researching various things claimed to be good for me, I’ve found him to usually be right. 
Rhubarb is a plant originally found in China and was traditionally used for medicinal purposes and became a great commodity for traders and travelers from Asia to Europe. The type of rhubarb we are most familiar eating here in the US, English Rhubarb, was brought to the New World for its medicinal roots, and generally used as a purgative, to treat the stomach, colon and liver ailments. Recent research indicates it may be helpful as a way to lower cholesterol. The vegetable is considered to be a whole food medicine and a source of potassium, calcium and moderate amounts of vitamins A and C. It is also low in calories, if you don’t use sugar! 

Rhubarb’s red color contains antioxidant ‘free radical scavenging’ activity. These phyto-chemical micronutrients protect the heart, lungs and blood vessels and have also been proven to lower the risk of developing some types of cancer.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that rhubarb became used for culinary purposes, but it seems its popularity rapidly spread. Today rhubarb is making its comeback in haute cuisine and even Jamie Oliver uses it in his Slow-roasted Duck with Sage, Ginger and Rhubarb Homemade Sauce’.  I wonder what Alice the Lunch Lady thinks of that recipe.  If you feel adventurous, an internet search will reveal recipes from rhubarb crumble with clotted cream to rhubarb champagne.

Choose rhubarb that is firm and brightly colored, and preferably stalks that have been pulled, not cut. Trim the leaves, the roots and any strings (like celery) and use as soon as possible. You can also store in a zip lock in the fridge, or cut it into pieces and freeze it to use later.

Here's my Grandma's pie recipe - we think its still the best.

 Grandma Mary Dodge’s Rhubarb Cream Pie
4 cups rhubarb, cut into ½” slices
1 ¼- 1/3 cups sugar (more or less, depending on how tart your rhubarb is)
1 egg
3 Tablespoons of flour (for gluten-free try cornstarch, potato or tapioca flour)
½ teaspoon lemon juice.

1. Mix the flour into the sugar.
2. Beat the egg and mix the sugar/flour into it.
3. Mix the rhubarb into the egg/sugar mixture and pour into bottom crust.
4. Sprinkle with lemon juice.
5. Put small pats of butter on top.
6. Put on top crust and cut pattern through the top crust.
7. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake 425 for ten minutes.
Then bake at 375 until it bubbles through the cuts in the top.
Be sure to put a pan under it, because mine always boils over.

Use your favorite pie crust for a two crust pie.

If you prefer gluten free, like me, here are some suggestions so that you don’t have pie envy.

If you are GF pie crust challenged, try Gluten Free Pantry’s Perfect Pie Crust box mix.

If you like to bake and want a great GF crust recipe, try:Gluten Free Pie Crust  from Elanaspantry’s Elana Amsterdam.  Her blog is fun and everything is delicious, kid-tested, nutritious and fairly easy to make.

For more info on rhubarb and recipes:


  1. From an email to Suzi:
    I like your blog. You certainly did your homework! But I have to tell you I am not as purest as Grandma and Aunt Marguerite when making sauce. I found a recipe years ago for rhubarb sauce that I always use. It calls for orange juice instead of water and said to add cinnamon. And don't forget the sugar. You may like your sauce without, but not me. I have no amounts, as I just throw it in the pot and cook it until it's done and I add the sugar and cinnamon until it tastes right. Love, Mom

  2. Suzi-the French have an expression, "On fait de la rhubarb." which refers to having rhubarb as a cure/preventive measure for constipation. I greq up eating simply stewed rhubarb on whole wheat toast. YUM! Jam, muffins, rhubarb bread,sauce over ice cream/lb cake, pies-all good. I definately freeze some every year and we enjoy a rhubarb pie during the holidays. Jamie Oliver's recipe looks wonderful. Great blog, thanks for sharing!

  3. Mom -- we need to post the sauce recipe -- and Madame Anonymous, thanks for the french saying -- I have never heard that!

  4. I am so in love with you blog! Thank you for all you do and I look forward to hearing more.

  5. Suzi asked me to post the rhubarb ice cream recipe. We always had home made, hand cranked ice cream at Christmas. We haven't made it in years and I suppose people don't use the old hand cranked freezers any more, but the new methods surely don't taste as delicious and creamy. So I got out my old cookbook with the covers loose and pages tattered and spotted and found my ice cream recipe. The recipe is in the 1955 version of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook.

    Grandma's Ice Cream
    This recipe is for a 2-qt freezer. Our old one was bigger so I made 1 1/2 times the recipe. Then we got a 6-qt freezer and I had to figure out the amounts all over again.

    1 1/2 cups milk
    3/4 cup sugar
    2 tablesp. flour
    few grains salt
    2 eggs or 3 egg yolks
    1 1/2 tsp vanilla
    11 1/2 cups heavy cream

    In double boiler, scald milk. Mix sugar, flour, and salt; stir in enough milk to make a smooth paste. Stir the paste back into the hot milk in the double boiler. Stir until thickened' cook covered, 10 min. Beat eggs slightly' stir in milk mixture; return to double boiler' cook 1 minute. Cool; add vanilla, cream and fruit. I would make some rhubarb sauce. The recipe is above. Drain it and add between 1 1/2 to 2 cups of drained rhubarb. Freeze in 2-gt. or larger crank freezer until difficult to turn, using 8 parts crushed ice to 1 part ice-cream salt.

    To Ripen: When ice cream is firm, draw out water from freezer; wipe off and remove lid. Take out the dasher and give the kids spoons to scrape the ice cream off; plug opening in lid. Pack ice-cream mixture down; re-cover. Repack freezer as follows: If serving within 2 hours, use 1 qt. crushed ice to each 1 cup ice cream salt.; if holding ice cream longer, use 2 qt. ice to each 1 cup salt; cover with heavy cloth. Makes 1/1/4 qt.

    You can see it's a lot of work. Johnny and Suzi would help Dad crank. With all that work, you can see why we got a bigger freezer. One year I added 1/1/2 cups of crushed raspberries that we had picked the previous summer and frozen, sweetened with 1/4 cup of sugar.

    I looked on the internet yesterday and there are lots of rhubarb ice cream recipes to be found, and lots easier to make. Why not try one while rhubarb is still in season?

    You can freeze rhubarb. Just wash, cut and pack in some plastic bags. You will be able to enjoy wonderful rhubarb desserts next winter.

    Suzi's Mom

  6. Thank you - I to am a true fan of rhubarb. Jim and I developed a sauce too that varies depending on what we find and gather from the farmer's markets or organic produce. Usually we like peaches, blueberries, strawberries and rhubarb chopped with some organic sugar..simmer til bubbly and thick. Cooled or just warm and poured over anything but we like it on brownies with ice knocks our socks over goodness. :-) thank you for these recipes and stories~~~Joan