Don’t blink. Strawberries and Rhubarb are in season in my Home Kitchen Garden, but that won’t last for long. I have only two productive rhubarb plants, so I don’t eat much rhubarb in a season. I usually get three or four harvests before the plants stress out in summer heat. Thankfully, in the first few weeks of strawberry season, there is always enough rhubarb to make pie.
I used to make rhubarb pie, and it suited me just fine. In recent years, however, I’ve held out for strawberries and rhubarb… can’t say I like the combination better, but I like it as much… and more people are open to eating strawberries and rhubarb than they are to eating rhubarb alone.
My mom raised me on pies made with oil-and-milk pie crusts. Classic pie crust involves cutting shortening into flour and wetting the mixture with enough milk to make a heavy dough. Oil-and-milk crust involves adding milk to salad oil and stirring that into flour. I’m sure a trained pastry chef can argue the quality of the resulting pie crusts, but for the effort, oil-and-milk is just fine.
Unless you’re someone who struggles with rolling pins (I’ve known a few admitted rolling-challenged folks), making pie is a very easy task. It is time-consuming, taking minimally 40 minutes to go from fresh fruit to assembled pie… and another 40 to 60 minutes for baking. Here’s the motivation:
When you show up to dinner with a homemade fruit pie, for some reason you impress people. My guess is that those people have never made pie and have no idea how stupid-easy it is to do. Pie is a great dessert, so why not learn to make it and enjoy the enjoyment others express toward your baking?
I haven’t followed a fruit pie recipe in more than ten years. I’ve learned the recipe for dough from making a lot of pies. After that, I work from three rules of thumb and constant experimentation. See the box titled Recipes for Pie (below) for the shorthand of what I did in the photos. Here are the important rules of thumb for making fruit pie fillings:
1. Think of apple pie filling as the baseline and make adjustments from there. For an apple pie, if you use four-to-five cups of fruit, sweeten it with one cup of sugar, and thicken it with three tablespoons of all-purpose flour.
2. Adjust the sugar according to the fruit’s sweetness. Apples are fairly sweet; rhubarb is not.
3. Adjust the flour according to the fruit’s juiciness. Apples aren’t particularly juicy; nor is rhubarb. Strawberries, however, are very juicy.
The photos in this post demonstrate every key step of making strawberry-rhubarb pie with the exception of taking the pie(s) out of the oven. Oddly, we ate the baked pies before it occurred to me to take a photo.
Before the season passes you by, harvest some rhubarb, pick some strawberries, and make some pies! Oh, and if you prefer video instructions, please visit my sister web sight, Your Small Kitchen Garden, where I’ll post links to videos demonstrating how to make strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Unless you have a home kitchen garden, you probably aren’t familiar with rhubarb. Heck, plenty of kitchen gardeners miss out on this spring treat. If you have space to grow it, but you’ve never tasted rhubarb, I suggest restraint: don’t plant rhubarb until you know you’re going to use it. I can tell you it’s delicious, but you should decide for yourself; most rhubarb enthusiasts grew up eating it, and I can’t think of a familiar flavor to which I can compare it.
There must be thousands of people who acquired rhubarb by buying a house with rhubarb plants in the yard. If you’re one of those people, you may wonder how to prepare the stuff… at least so you can try it once and decide whether to maintain your rhubarb patch. On the other hand, if you have a home kitchen garden without rhubarb plants, and the idea of harvesting your first significant crop in early-to-mid spring is compelling, you should sample some rhubarb and decide whether to add some to your landscape.
In case you’ve never seen it done, here’s how to harvest rhubarb and cook it into a delicious sauce to serve as a side dish, or as a topping for cottage cheese, yogurt, cereal, or whatever else you eat with a fruity topping:
1. Harvest rhubarb stalks. To pick a stalk, pull it directly away from the rest of the plant in the direction the stalk is growing. It should come free as though popping out of a socket. The bottom of the stalk should end in a pink, fan-shaped scoop. Try not to break the stalk off when you pull it.
2. Cut off the leaf, and pull off any dry, leaf-like material near the base of the stalk.
3. Rinse off soil, insects, and any other foreign materials you’d rather not eat.
4. If there are ugly blemishes or dried out spots, incise them from the rhubarb stalks.
5. Cut the stalks into ¾- or 1-inch sections and put the sections in a sauce pot.
6. Add an eighth of an inch of water or less to the pot; just enough to cover the bottom.
7. Cover the pot and set it on very low heat; it will need to cook for 45 minutes to an hour at that setting.
8. While the sauce is hot, add sugar to taste and stir till it dissolves. Rhubarb is very sour; I add about one cup of sugar to every quart of sauce.
9. Refrigerate the rhubarb sauce and serve it cold.
Please visit my blog post Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb for a discussion about planting and growing your own rhubarb.
Each time I mow the lawn, I dump the clippings in the garden. The accumulated depth of the fresh clippings might total four feet, but the clippings decay into the soil. By next spring, the soil is bare… though weeds abound.
This past week finally produced the kind of weather that gets me started in my home kitchen garden. While conventional wisdom says to get out there as soon as you can work the soil, I tend to delay a few weeks. There are a few advantages to this strategy:
1. When the soil first thaws, it tends to contain a lot of moisture; working in the mud is unpleasant, and waiting a week or two lets the soil dry out a bit.
2. I’m usually pruning and grafting fruit trees until their buds start to open; I do this in late winter because those days aren’t miserably cold, but it means I’m busy in the trees when my soil thaws.
3. After the soil thaws, it takes a few weeks for the weeds to start growing. Were I to start in my planting bed at this time, I might not spot the dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass that rooted last summer. These grow rapidly, and in a few weeks their new growth will make them easy to spot; I begin spring planting with a ceremonial removal of last year’s weeds.
4. Sure, cold-weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions will withstand cold days likely to hit after the soil thaws, but they won’t do a whole lot of growing. I’ve seen peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator where it’s always about 42F degrees. But after a month at 42 degrees, the peas were still just sprouts. Why not let the soil warm just a bit so the seeds feel cozier when they go in the ground?
Last week, I finally assessed my garden bed. To put things in context, here’s how I left things in the fall:
I mulch between planting rows with grass clippings from my lawn. I pile these on all growing season. They keep the weeds down except along the plantings—wherever I maintain a gap for vegetables to grow, there is a green oasis of competing weeds.
If you find a square-stemmed plant with purple blossoms in your home kitchen garden, it may not be a weed. These are members of the mint family, and you may be growing them as herbs. The square-stemmed plants in my kitchen garden are probably catnip. I don’t want them there, so they’re weeds.
I pulled the tomato stakes and threw most of the dead tomato plants in the compost heap, and I swiped a few panels of the garden fence to put around fruit trees I planted in November. Finally, my kids raked the lawn and tossed all the leaves onto the planting bed.
There was little snow over the winter, so there was nothing to compress the leaves and encourage them to decompose.
Here’s what I found in the garden:
The grass-clipping mulch is gone! It has completely rotted away to bare soil. I’m used to finding a thin cap of dry, decomposing grass on the soil at the beginning of a growing season, but there is none.
There are leaves all over the planting bed, though most had gathered at the east end, blown there by the prevailing wind and trapped by the garden fence. The prevalent weed is dandelion, but there’s also a patch of something out of the mint family—I guess catnip because it has no minty scent.
Rhubarb on the left, and oregano on the right are making excellent starts in my home kitchen garden. I reserved about four feet at one end of the raised bed for perennials, and these are the ones that thank me.
Already, rhubarb is pushing up through the leaves, and there’s a lot of green deep under the dried stalks of last year’s oregano. I planted a single pot of oregano four years ago, and it’s now a four-foot diameter circle that laughs at winter chill.
Finally, I found clusters of delphinium leaves in a corner where I planted them when I planted the oregano. I don’t know what came over me that day; it seems a travesty to have given up garden space for something I’m never going to eat.
As I scanned the garden bed, imagining where I’d plant each type of vegetable, I noticed a small patch of grass clippings where a tomato plant had stood last summer. I suspiciously (and gently) moved some of the grass aside and made an aggravating discovery: a rabbit had beaten me to my garden. The nest held at least four nearly-naked babies.
This is the third season I’ve found such an obstacle in my planting bed, and I’ve managed to work around rabbit babies in the past. Thankfully, mother rabbit didn’t approve of my meddling, and she carried her babies off to a new nest later that day.