I was ready to delve into this celebration today but before I began I had to answer one important question: what exactly is rhubarb? I know what it is, kind of. I’ve heard of it. I knew it was a vegetable. I’ve seen it. It looks like a large stalk of red celery. I’ve even eaten it before, oddly enough in strawberry rhubarb pie form. But I’ve never really examined it let alone worked with it.
I should say that I was not going to bake today. Another day of work and I didn’t have the time to give to making my own pie, especially with an ingredient like rhubarb that I didn’t know how to use. My plan all along was to pick a pie up at a bakery or store to enjoy. That was the easy way out and also a tribute to the popularity of this pie. I was pretty sure I could find one without effort and as it turns out, I found one at the very first store I looked in. More on that later, I just didn’t want you to get all excited about my baking tales only to finish with a store bought pie.
Rhubarb is a pretty old plant. In fact, it’s about 4000 years old and the first mention of it goes back to China in the year 2700 BC. Back in those days, they were harvesting it for medicinal purposes which seems what our early ancestors liked to do with any strange plant or fruit. But the Chinese believed in this plant and used it to help heal battle wounds and even the plague over the years. Like most things, eventually the plant was imported to the West and it appears in early Greece and Rome in the first century. By the tenth century, rhubarb had become a major export of China. It wasn’t until the late 1600’s that people started eating rhubarb. The leaves of rhubarb are poisonous so it seems like the world was a bit tentative to eat the root of this plant. But just like the kid that eats the paste in kindergarten, someone always decides to give something new a taste. The first recipe for rhubarb appears in cookbooks at the turn of the 19th century. Rhubarb is a very, very tart food. If you were to bite into the stalk, you would most likely not be happy. That’s why it’s used in so many desserts where you can cut the tartness with some sweetness and sugar. You can use it in soup and stews or as a side dish on the savory side, but you will still need to deal with the tartness. In cooking, its BFF is the strawberry whose sweet flavor pairs perfectly with the tartness of the rhubarb.
Although I didn’t cook a pie, I had to investigate how to cook a pie because I was curious about how you would prep the rhubarb. Come to find out, it’s pretty simple. You just chop the stalks into small pieces, about 1/2 inch each. You use these pieces as part of your filling mixed with fresh sliced strawberries, a generous amount of sugar, some lemon zest and corn starch. The lemon and sugar will start breaking down the fruit as it cooks (and yes, technically rhubarb is a fruit according to the US classification system, although worldwide it’s considered a vegetable). The corn starch will thicken up the juices and you have your pie filling. It cooks for about 45 minutes and cools for another few hours. Or, you can just go to Trader Joe’s and have a whole pie in your cart in minutes. That’s what I did. I’m still impressed with Trader Joe’s although my cookie buddy wasn’t there today. (No free cookie make Danny angry.) Apart from that, everything I’ve purchased there has been of good quality. Their Strawberry Rhubarb Pie looked delicious. It was on the smaller side (compared to some of the giant pies you see in stores) but that was perfect for us, and it had a nice lattice pattern on top. I was pleased.
My frame of reference for a good Strawberry Rhubarb Pie was limited to the one pie I have ever tasted, but that particular pie set the bar pretty high. It was a pie that was shared with Lola’s family when her mom was very sick. That was naturally a time of sadness but also a time of receiving great kindness and love from friends and neighbors. There was always all kinds of food being dropped off as little gestures of love to let the family know we were being thought of in this hard time. There was soups and stews and casseroles and dinners. And of course there were desserts. In the midst of all that, a neighbor had dropped off a homemade strawberry rhubarb pie and to this day, the whole family remembers it. It was everything you wanted in a pie – sweet and tart, beautifully made crust which tasted buttery and flaky. It was a star. That’s my benchmark for a good Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, so this Trader Joe’s pie had a lot to live up to. I cut a slice for both Lola and I after dinner, heated it in the microwave and then served it with vanilla ice cream.
Was this pie as good as the other pie? Of course not. That other pie was homemade and that’s always going to have a better flavor, even in just the love that goes into baking it. But the Trader Joe’s pie wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was pretty good. It had everything I was looking for. The crust was flaky and perfectly browned. The filling was a perfect combination of sweet and tart, not too much of either but a happy balance. The ice cream helped fill in any gaps adding sweet creaminess along with that cool taste to balance out the warmth of the pie. It was really good. You could see the rhubarb in the pie too – it looked like sliced celery – but it was thoroughly cooked so it didn’t have a discernible texture to it. It was a great little treat at the end of the day, so thank you Trader Joe’s.
I wasn’t able to bake a Strawberry Rhubarb Pie today but I still felt like I celebrated the day. Sometimes buying what you need at the store is the perfect solution. Somewhere in a bakery is someone who knows exactly how to make a pie and sometimes it’s the prudent choice to go with their work. They are the experts and by enjoying their work, we are truly celebrating the magic of what they do, even if that baker is Trader Joe. I also grew to appreciate rhubarb a little more. I never gave it much thought, but now I know more about it. Next time Lola gets the plague, I’ll know just how to treat it. I also know not to eat the leaves. I learned a lot today and it all ended with a delicious piece of pie. That’s a win in my book.
Next up: World Gin Day
History from KitchenProject.com