Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Foreigners From Beyond The Rha

Rhubarb is an ancient plant.  In China it has been used medicinally for thousands of years.  A different variety of rhubarb has grown wild along the River Volga for centuries. The word rhubarb comes to us from the ancient Greeks.  Rha is the ancient Greek name for the Volga region and barbarian is the ancient Greek word for foreigner, or, "foreigners from beyond the Rha."

Marco Polo returned from China with tales of rhubarb.  Its first known recorded presence in Europe was in Italy in the early 1600’s and from there it spread across Europe.  Within 150 years rhubarb was classified as a food plant in Europe. 

Rhubarb is not native to North America.  Exactly how it was imported to this country is unknown, but by the 1820’s it was readily available in farmer’s markets in Massachusetts.  Food historians believe that shortly after the Revolutionary War rhubarb seeds or rhizomes entered this country through Maine and were cultivated by a gardener whose name has not survived in written record.  Although a vegetable, rhubarb was classified as a fruit due to the financial regulatory benefits of such a classification. 

The leaves and stalks of the rhubarb plant contain a powerful toxin—oxalic acid.  It is believed that the leaves contain a second toxin, the identity of which remains as yet unconfirmed.  This second toxin is not present in the stalks, which also have much less oxalic acid making them safe for us to eat.

My personal journey with rhubarb began many years ago, and it is a favorite consumable in our home.  It gets used in many ways--jams, pies, crisps, and kuchens are among the favorites.  It also gets frozen for winter use, which means we eat rhubarb all year long.  When I was baking professionally, rhubarb baked goods were among the most popular.  My customers couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  One of their favorites, Rhubarb Streusel Pie, is also one of my family’s favorites.  This recipe settled into its present form about six years ago.  It is a tried and true favorite, and I am very happy to share it here.  Enjoy!

Notes for this recipe:  Fresh or frozen rhubarb can be used for this recipe.  Frozen rhubarb must be thawed, don't be concerned about extra liquid, it will be thickened successfully by the tapioca during baking.  I turned to tapioca as a thickening agent for pies many years ago due to unsatisfactory results from flour and cornstarch.  Use quick cooking tapioca also known as tapioca granules.  Try to use stalks with a lovely red or rosy color.  Do NOT peel the rhubarb.

Rhubarb Streusel Pie

For the Filling:
½ c. brown sugar
3 Tbsp. tapioca (4 Tbsp. if rhubarb is frozen)
2 tsp. ginger
2 lbs. trimmed rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces (approx. 6 good-sized stalks)

9” single unbaked pie crust (Click for link to my recipe for pie crust)

Streusel topping:
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
¾ c. flour
¼ c. oats
1 tsp. ginger
½ c. brown sugar

In a large bowl combine all the filling ingredients and set aside.  This allows the rhubarb to juice while the crust is rolled out and the streusel topping is prepared. 

Preheat oven to 450.

Roll out the crust and place into a 9” pie crust.  Crimp the edges high.  Set aside.

For the topping:  Place all the ingredients in a medium bowl.  With your fingers rub the ingredients to mix.  The mixture will be crumbly.  Set aside.

Scrape the filling into the prepared pie crust and smooth over.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the filling being sure to cover to the edge.  Place the pie in the oven.

Bake at 450 for 20 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350 and bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until the pie is done.  Filling should be bubbling close to the center.  Remove pie to a rack and cool completely.  If desired, the pie can be served slightly warm. 

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