Rhubarb has survived more than 5,000 years, but our Rhubarb Festival only 15 thanks to the new coronavirus. So sad. Maybe it will be back next year — we can only hope.

According to legend and history, Marco Polo brought rhubarb from Asia into Europe in 1271. It was a hardy plant, and it is said that travelers to the New World brought rhubarb seeds with them. It will grow almost anywhere that it can get plenty of water, although it seems to thrive in northern climates and is grown commercially in several northern states.

Even though we think of rhubarb as a fruit because that’s mainly how we use it, botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable. It was used as a medicine (for constipation) by the Romans, Greeks and Arabs. Since those times, we’ve learned to treat it as a fruit mostly because it needs lots of sugar to be near palatable. As kids, we’d love to pull a rhubarb stalk and dip the cut end in sugar or salt and eat it raw.

Baked Chicken with Rhubarb goes well with a side of wild rice. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
Baked Chicken with Rhubarb goes well with a side of wild rice. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

We only eat the stalks, not the leaves as the rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and are toxic. You’d have to eat 11 pounds of leaves to become fatal. Some people use the leaves for cleaning aluminum pans and for tanning hides. Not palatable!

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Over the years, I have enjoyed rhubarb in every way from juice to desserts of all kinds. When we first started the rhubarb festival in Duluth, we had a recipe contest and some of the most interesting recipes included rhubarb in main dishes such as a rhubarb baked chicken and rhubarb barbecue sauce. Of course, we had an abundance of wonderful dessert recipes.

One day I was lamenting that it isn’t as easy to get fresh rhubarb now that we live in an apartment. Then, magically, a bag full of fresh rhubarb was hung on our door. Thank you, Sharon! I can’t resist. Have to start with a rhubarb pie.

CLASSIC RHUBARB PIE

One of the best pie-baking lessons I learned was from my mother, who had only one pie recipe in her box. It was entitled “Apple Pie.” When I asked her for her recipe for rhubarb pie, she said, “Oh, I don’t know, I just use my apple pie recipe and substitute rhubarb.” Common sense tells me to use a little more sugar. So, you can use this basic recipe and follow the variations using whatever you have on hand.

Basic dough for a double crust pie, either purchased or homemade

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 to 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, optional

1/8 teaspoon ground or 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, optional

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup cornstarch

4 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

Prepare the dough for the pie crust using your own favorite recipe or following the directions for purchased pie crust. Use half to line a 9-inch pie pan. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, seasonings, cornstarch and fruit. Turn into the crust-lined pan. Top with dots of butter. Roll the remaining dough to fit the top of the pie. Place over the fruit. Moisten the edges of the crusts and crimp to seal. Make a few slits on the top crust for steam to escape. Bake for 45 minutes or until the crust is golden. Makes one 9-inch pie, about 8 servings.

Variations:

Apple Pie: Peel, core and slice tart apples. Reduce cornstarch to 1/4 cup and reduce sugar to 3/4 cup.

Basic berry pie: Clean the berries and measure, mix with the seasonings and cornstarch.

Rhubarb-strawberry pie: Replace half the rhubarb with halved, fresh strawberries. Omit cinnamon and nutmeg. Add 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel to the fruit mixture.

A mistake with Rhubarb Butter-crust Dessert led to this pudding in a cup. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
A mistake with Rhubarb Butter-crust Dessert led to this pudding in a cup. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

RHUBARB BUTTER-CRUST DESSERT

This is a favorite dessert, a recipe I found in an old church cookbook. You first bake a buttery crust and top it with rhubarb and then finish baking the dessert.

Do you ever have an “oops” moment? I just did with this dessert — I was involved with a bunch of other concerns and missed the flour in the rhubarb topping turning the dessert from a butter-crust dessert to a pudding. It was delicious anyway, and we spooned the dessert into little glasses.

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup (1 stick) butter, cut up

5 tablespoons powdered sugar

Pinch of salt

Rhubarb topping:

2 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking powder

3 cups rhubarb, trimmed and sliced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 13x9-inch pan. In a bowl or in the food processor with the steel blade in place, combine the 1 cup flour, butter, powdered sugar and egg. Process until butter is thoroughly cut into the flour. Dump the mixture into the prepared pan and tamp the mixture down evenly. Bake for 10 minutes; remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs and add the sugar; beat until pale golden in color; mix in the flour and baking powder. Fold in the rhubarb and pour the mixture evenly over the baked crust. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the topping is set.

RHUBARB MARMALADE

If you have extra rhubarb on hand you need to use it up, here’s an idea to put “summer in a jar,” as mom used to say, so that you can enjoy the fresh flavor next winter. Chopped fresh ginger root is a perfect spice to bring out the flavor of the rhubarb. I actually think it is delicious spooned over toast spread with cream cheese.

8 cups sliced fresh rhubarb

1/4 cup each fresh orange and lemon juice

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger root

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 tablespoon each grated fresh orange peel and lemon peel

2 seedless oranges, peeled and sectioned

1 1/2 cups walnut halves

In a large enameled or stainless steel pot, combine the rhubarb, orange juice, lemon juice and ginger. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat; simmer 30 minutes or until rhubarb is soft. Stir in the sugar and bring to a boil. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the peels and the orange sections. Return to a boil; remove from heat. Add walnuts.

Meanwhile, put 6 pint-sized jars with their lids into a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Ladle the rhubarb mixture into the hot jars and top with the lids and rings. Place into the pot with boiling water to cover by 2 inches. Simmer for 15 minutes; remove from the water and cool on racks away from drafts. Label and store. Makes six 1-pint jars.

Baked Chicken with Rhubarb (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
Baked Chicken with Rhubarb (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

BAKED CHICKEN WITH RHUBARB

The mild flavor of chicken takes to the spicy/tart flavor of rhubarb sauce in this recipe; serve over cooked brown or wild rice.

3 pounds cut-up chicken, chicken breasts or chicken thighs

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons salt

2 cups rhubarb cut into half-inch pieces

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 1/2 cups water

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Hot cooked brown or wild rice

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wash and dry the chicken and place into a shallow baking dish. Brush with butter and sprinkle with salt and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the rhubarb, sugar, cornstarch, water, lemon juice, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until the mixture boils. Cook until clear and thickened, about 2 minutes. Cool. Spoon the rhubarb sauce over the chicken evenly and return to the oven. Bake 20 minutes longer or until chicken is done. Serve over hot cooked rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

RHUBARB BARBECUED RIBS

This flavorful sauce is good on beef ribs as well as pork.

3 1/2 to 4 pounds beef short ribs or pork loin ribs

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 cup water

Rhubarb barbecue sauce

4 cups rhubarb, trimmed and cut into dice

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 to 4 drops Tabasco or sriracha sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Trim excess fat from the ribs. In a heavy pan, brown the ribs on all sides and sprinkle with chili powder, salt and pepper. Add water. Cover and bake for 1 ½ hours or until tender.

Remove ribs to a roasting pan with a rack. Pour the cooking liquid and drippings from the roasting pan into a saucepan. Add the rhubarb, sugar, vinegar, ketchup and Tabasco. Heat to boiling and boil the sauce for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Brush ribs with some of the rhubarb sauce. Bake for 15 minutes and brush with more of the sauce; bake until ribs are glazed and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Serve with additional barbecue sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks.