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Monday, June 15, 2009

Not too late for rhubarb

A crazy month and a lot of catching up to do! There is still time to use the rhubarb in your backyard...or your neighbor's--here in the upper Midwest, it seems like rhubarb is sometimes like the zucchini of spring, with many gardeners so overly blessed with these ruby red stalks, they are delighted to share with whoever can use the stuff.

I'll admit that I have never been a very big rhubarb fan, but everyone I know seems to love the stuff. If you live far enough north to be able to grow it, by all means start a couple of roots, as it becomes a virtually free food source after the first year. The plants grow easily here in Minnesota, with some homeowners still harvesting stalks for decades. Once established, the "fruit" is virtually free, so it is a good choice for frugal breads and desserts. It freezes well too; just wash, slice, and wrap tightly, squeezing out as much air as possible from the bag.

Another advantage of rhubarb is the nutritional boost it provides for only 26 calories per serving. Of course, its natural tartness means that virtually every recipe that includes it will also have quite a bit of sugar. Still it does qualify as a good nutritional choice, with a lot of vitamin C. You can find a full breakdown of its attributes at http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/2056/2

Strawberries are often teamed with rhubarb, a good way to make the generally more expensive strawberries go further. The Strawberry Rhubarb Cake is extremely quick to make and is a good last minute recipe to keep in mind. If you use frozen rhubarb or strawberries, drain the fruit and use that for part of the liquid in the cake mix.

Strawberry Rhubarb Cake

1/4 c butter
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
3/4 t cinnamon
2 c diced rhubarb (my cake today actually had only about 1 3/4 cup)
2 c sliced strawberries
white or yellow cake mix, two layer size
eggs, water, and oil as directed on cake mix
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dice the butter into the bottom of a 9 X 13 pan and put in oven just long enough to melt. Remove and mix with sugars and cinnamon in the pan, spreading the mixture evenly.
Dice the rhubarb and slice the strawberries and spread evenly over the sugar and butter mixture. Press the fruit down into the mixture with a fork, so that it is well mixed.
Prepare the cake mix as directed on the package, adding the cinnamon and nutmeg with the other ingredients.
Pour the prepared cake batter over the fruit and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes and then invert on a serving platter. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream if desired.
NOTE: This cake is so tender, I used about a tablespoon or so less oil in the batter, still with good results.

With a cake mix I had gotten on sale for less than a dollar a few weeks ago and the strawberries and eggs on special this week, the total cost of the cake came to just over $2; the "free" rhubarb really helped to keep the cost down.

The rhubarb pie my kids grew up loving came from their grandmother who had herself received it from generations before. It is a simple dessert and also can be made inexpensively if you have backyard access to rhubarb. Though I don't mind making piecrust, this is an area where the convenience of a pre-made crust may not be much more costly than from scratch—and it may mean the difference between you trying the recipe or passing it by. Since even homemade piecrust is not really what anyone would call a health food, opting for the more preservative-laden pre-made crust might be worth an occasional splurge.


Grandma's Rhubarb Custard Pie

2 to 3 c diced rhubarb
2 to 3 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c sugar
3 T to 1/4 c cornstarch
1/2 c milk
cinnamon
9 inch unbaked pie shell

Spread rhubarb in the prepared pie shell. Mix all the other ingredients, except cinnamon, together until smooth. Pour over the rhubarb, sprinkle liberally with cinnamon, and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until set. To test custards like this, insert a table knife near the center. The blade should come out with none of the mixture clinging to it.

NOTE: As you can see, this is one of those old-fashioned recipes where everything is VERY approximate! I have found that three cups of rhubarb is a good amount to make the filling a generous depth. With the larger amount of fruit, you will want to use three eggs and the full quarter cup of cornstarch. The key is to be sure that you don't end up with a filling that never quite sets.

Oh--and the original recipe called for "top milk," that creamy layer on top of farm milk that had not been homogenized. I have always used skim milk, but you will have a richer custard by using half and half or whole milk.

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