What is happening now is that the tiniest little green things are appearing among the apparently war-struck detritus of the winter yard – the spear shaped leaves of sorrel, for instance. They’ll be ready to add their sour green notes to an omelet by next week. Last weekend I discovered the tubers of Jerusalem artichokes clinging to the ends of the woody sunchoke stems. I washed one off and cut a slice and it was sweet and crisp with that distinctly smoky taste, wonderful added to stews, made into a soup, sautéed in coconut oil until crisp on the outside and creamy in, or eaten raw with a cheesy dip of some sort. I’ll bet I’d find shoots of tarragon if I scratched around enough, and there was lots of fresh, crinkled spinach at the Farmers’ Market Saturday.
Suddenly. In spite of everything. It is (early, early) Spring.
Green and magenta knobs of rhubarb are showing through last year’s rotting leaves. It won’t be long until we can make the first rhubarb pie.
If you grew up with rhubarb you probably think of it as a treat: from the first time you toddled alone out to the patch of towering broad leaves, with their hint of strength and poison, grabbed a thick red stalk and leaned your slight weight back against it and then towed it back into the kitchen. There, a big person trimmed off the leaf for you and handed you a little dish of sugar, and you plunged the raw end of the stalk into it and took your first hardy crunch and felt the sourness and sweetness contract the corners of your eyes. You were hooked. When you got older, then, that first rhubarb pie made your eyes widen: it was Spring. You were about to taste an omen, a token, an icon, a memory, your imagination.
It’s an ancient plant – traced to 2700 BC in China, and to 1790 for the American roots – and it was used, like most bitter spring plants, as a tonic, to get the digestive system going. It’s an old-fashioned plant – you seldom see a dooryard of an old house – extant or vanished – without a lilac and a flourishing specimen of the pie plant, as it was called. How many first-haying suppers, tables crowded with dead-tired and famished haying crew, did a rhubarb pie or two, or three, not grace?
And yet I think of the rhubarb pie as the passion of a sophisticated palate that won’t be satisfied with quick and easy fixes, that appreciates the difficult art of a food that so many people relied on before things got all-sweet-all-the-time. Like the tastes of asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads and ramps, not to speak of morels, we anticipate that of rhubarb with a kind of greed that comes for foods that are strangers to a world increasingly prone to a canned blurring of the seasons. They speak, gently but pungently, of spring.
The Rhubarb Custard Pie
My grandmother’s crust was pale, never golden, even white. She used lard, and sometimes a bit of butter. It was slightly salty, never sweet, so that it was a flaky foil to any filling. Flaky? When your teeth bit into it they slid off each other, then through with a click, as though biting into a scrumptious, slightly salty, richly greasy, layered shaley stone. It was the queen of pie crusts, the one everyone else aspired to. After Grandma died, Aunt made the pies, for her crusts were closest, even though she would grunt, "Humph, not as good as Ma's, but..."
It took me years to learn to make a good crust, and that was only after I realized I had taken too seriously admonishments not to handle it too much and so it all fell apart when I tried to roll it out. I knew this, but could do nothing about it. Every time I tried to squeeze that dough together the bones in my fingers locked up.
This is the way I make it now: Preheat the oven to 450°. Into the bowl of a food processor put 2 cups of unbleached flour (9 oz); 1 teaspoon salt; 1/3 cup cold butter cut into small chunks (3 oz); 1/3 cup of lard (3 oz). Pulse until the mixture is the size of coarse meal. Into 1/3 cup of water put two ice cubes, and, holding the ice back with your fingers, add it slowly to the flour mixture as you pulse the machine just until it comes into a smooth ball. I seldom use all the water, so go slowly and carefully. It shouldn’t be wet, but neither should it be too dry.
(To do this by hand, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and lard until the texture is correct, sprinkle with the water, toss with a fork until the dough comes together in a ball.)
Flour a working surface, scrape the dough onto it, knead it a bit, pat into a smooth ball and divide it in half. Take the slightly larger half and roll it out and fit it into your pie pan, making sure you have a generous overlap, at least an inch. Set aside and roll out the top crust and leave it while you make the filling.
(Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery)
Whisk 2 large eggs until foamy. Whisk in 1 ½ cups granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, grated rind of ½ lemon or lime, and ¼ teaspoon salt (I do this all in the processor). Pour 4 (generous) cups rhubarb that has been cleaned, trimmed, and cut into 1/3 inch slices (it should be dry) into the bottom crust. Think about whether you would like to add a few leaves of basil or sprigs of tarragon to the filling now. It’s quite intriguing. Pour the egg mixture over the rhubarb, dot with about 2 tablespoons butter (don’t forget this step, as I often do) and gently position the top crust over the rhubarb. Turn the overlap of the crusts under to seal, and then crimp the edges. They’ll be nice and thick and crispy when you’re done. Vent the top crust with the shears and sprinkle with turbinado sugar if you have it.
Don’t skimp on the sugar in a pie. I use practically no sugar on an everyday basis, but pies are the kind of special occasion on which, even when sugar was valuable and hard to get, it would be used abundantly.
Bake the pie at 450° for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 325° and bake for twenty or thirty minutes, or until the top crust is browned, the fruit is fork tender, and the filling is bubbling.
By baking for ten or fifteen minutes at a high heat, the bottom crust has less time to get soggy and the rhubarb gets a jump-start on becoming tender before the filling has time to boil and curdle the eggs. The long low-heat baking then thickens the custard while further tenderizing the rhubarb and crisping the crust.