Rhubarb, often called “pie plant,” is a fibrous vegetable in, of all things, the buckwheat family. It looks rather like dark red celery and Marco Polo raved about it from his journey to China. Rhubarb was originally grown in Asia and was first brought to the United States of America about 1790 or so. Colonists being the thrifty people they were, soon found out they could make pies with the red stems of this unusual plant. Thus, the strawberry rhubarb pie was born.
Rhubarb is extremely sour so the strawberries and added sugar help smooth out the taste. Conversely, the tartness of the rhubarb compliments the strawberry flavors. Strawberry rhubarb pie is rather like crisp or crumble — that is, it has a fruit filling with a streusel-like topping.
A basic strawberry rhubarb pie recipe requires: for the filling: 1 cup (227 grams) sugar; 3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca pearls; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg; 1 pound (454 grams) rhubarb, roughly chopped; 1 cup (227 grams) whole strawberries; one unbaked pie shell. The topping uses 1/3 cup (85 grams) flour; 1/3 cup (85 grams) sugar; 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg; 3 tablespoons butter, slightly softened. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 degrees Celsius).
For the filling, combine the sugar, tapioca, salt and nutmeg in a mixing bowl. Add rhubarb and strawberries; mix to coat the fruit. Let stand about 20 minutes. Pour the mixture into the pie shell. To mix the topping, combine topping ingredients, cutting in butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle mixture on top of pie filling. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
Cooks have also made pies of just rhubarb. In her book “The First Four Years,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder recalls making a rhubarb pie for the threshing crew (she refers to it as “pie plant”). In her hurry to get the meal cooked, she neglected to put sugar into the pie and was mortified when one of the threshers lifted up the pie crust on his piece and spread sugar on top. “Pie plant was so sour,” she writes, “And that first bite must have been simply awful.”
For all its tartness, however, rhubarb boasts great fiber and Vitamin C content. This makes it ideal for use in a variety of applications, not merely in strawberry rhubarb pie. It can be used in sauces and in salad dressings for a tart kick of flavor. It can also be made into jams or preserves, used in cakes and muffins and even as a base for wine. Who knew the humble rhubarb plant was so versatile?