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Say hello to spring, and to your taste buds, with fresh Rhubarb crostata pie.
Think of a long, bleak, 19th-century New England winter, when food was running low and a typical meal might be salt pork, milk gravy and, if you had “put by” enough in the fall, some pickles.
It’s no wonder that, come early spring, New Englanders — and others in northern climes — greeted rhubarb with joy. Rhubarb is one of the first plants to sprout from the still-chilly soil, and with its tart, bright taste, it wakes up the taste buds like nothing else.
Like so many foods (think honey or wheat, not Twinkies or Go-Gurt), rhubarb goes back to ancient times, when its powdered root was used for medicinal purposes. According to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, the British first figured out that the stalks could be eaten; a recipe for rhubarb appeared in an 1806 English cookbook.
Rhubarb hit the U.S. about the same time, says Andrew F. Smith, editor of “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.” It first appears in American writing in the 1833 edition of “The New Frugal Housewife” by Lydia Marie Child, who described rhubarb as “the earliest ingredient for pies” available each year. She opined that such pies were “dear” (expensive) because it took so much sugar to make the rhubarb palatable.
Rhubarb is easy to grow and increasingly easy to find in markets. Look for thin stalks (which are more tender and less stringy) that are green or have a reddish tint. It should be common knowledge that the leaves should not be eaten because they contain large amounts of oxalic acid, which can be toxic.
Ian Knauer — food writer and editor and TV personality by weekday, farmer by weekend — knows his rhubarb, along with such sharp spring delights as watercress and radishes. His drool-worthy seasonal cookbook, “The Farm,” offers “rustic recipes for a year of incredible food.” It’s a delightful book, and his Rhubarb Crostata Pie starts the culinary year off right. The Rhubarb Torte recipe comes from a dear friend, the late Cornelia Levin, of Vermont and Washington, D.C. Cornelia frequently brought this dish to neighborhood potluck suppers, and it would vanish within minutes.
Rhubarb crostata pie
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
For the pastry:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface and rolling pin
¼ cup finely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
For the filling:
¼ cup sour cream
5 cups diced (1-inch) rhubarb stalks
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Make the pastry: With your hands, work together the flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, butter and salt until it is mostly combined, with some small lumps of butter remaining. Stir in 2 tablespoons water with a fork. Press a small handful of dough together: If it looks powdery and does not come together, stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon water.
Transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap. Using the edge of the plastic, fold the dough over on itself, pressing until it comes together. Form the dough into a disc, wrap completely in the plastic and refrigerate 1 hour.
Center a rack in the oven, and preheat oven to 425 degrees.
On a well-floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 12-inch round. Place in a 10-inch pie tin.
Make the filling: Spread sour cream evenly over the bottom of the crust. Toss rhubarb with granulated sugar and lemon zest, then spread evenly over the sour cream. Fold the border of the dough up and over the edge of the fruit to fit the pie tin.
Bake until the crust is golden, the filling is bubbling and the rhubarb has started to brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe from “The Farm,” by Ian Knauer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
5 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2 large eggs, well beaten
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups diced (1-inch) rhubarb stalks
Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream together flour, butter and confectioners’ sugar. Press into an 8-by-8-inch square pan. Bake 12 minutes.
Mix the remaining ingredients together in order and spread over the partly baked crust. Return to oven and bake 30 minutes more. Serve warm or cold.
Recipe from Cornelia Levin of Washington, D.C., and Calais
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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