Ruby-red treasure in your backyard

I enjoy going on sightseeing tours and taking different routes through quaint little towns and villages whenever I can. A buddy of mine is a crop consultant and a few times in the summer we tour the countryside to see how the crops are doing in eastern Ontario. He needs to compare crops; I need fodder for columns.

We recently stopped for lunch in the bustling tourist town of Merrickville, which is between Ottawa and Brockville. The town is a motorcycle haven. Shiny chrome motorcycles are parked all along the main street and some side streets.

We visited a museum that displayed agricultural antiques and then watched boats go down the Rideau River canal locks. There are three in Merrickville and it is an interesting sight to see boats going through the locks. It’s a slow process. The three locks have a total lift of 25 feet. The original locks are still in use and still operated by muscle power. Lock staff crank the distinctive “crab” winches.

Sweet vegetable

Merrickville and many other small rural towns produce excellent rhubarb. Wherever you drive you see neglected rhubarb patches. So I’m amazed when I see rhubarb stalks in a grocery store for $4.99 a pound and at farmers’ market for $3 a handful. Who is buying it? I found the answer on the cover of a recent Chatelaine magazine — “18 Best Rhubarb Recipes for Spring.” Ah, avid home bakers wanting to try new recipes!

Ontario rhubarb with its rosy colour and tart flavour make it a favourite for pies, tarts and cakes, to say nothing of preserves and cobblers. Some recipes on Ontario’s Foodland website call for Ontario rhubarb while other ones call for Ontario Greenhouse rhubarb. Look for crisp, firm stalks. Colour may vary from various shades of green to deep ruby red. Greenhouse rhubarb has very small, bright yellow-green leaves, rosier-coloured stalks and a milder flavour than that grown naturally outdoors.

In warm climates, rhubarb will grow all year round, but in colder climates the parts of the plant above ground disappear completely during winter, then begin to grow again from the root in early spring.

History and uses

The plant originates in Asia and has grown wild along the banks of the River Volga for centuries. Rhubarb roots are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhubarb also appears in medieval Arabic and European prescriptions. It’s rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber. The use of rhubarb stems as food is a relatively recent innovation, first recorded in the 17th century England after affordable sugar became available to common people. Rhubarb first came to America in the 1820s, entering Maine and Massachusetts and moving westward with the European settlers. The popularity of rhubarb reached a peak between World War I and II.

My mother always made rhubarb and we’d eat it as a dessert. That reminds me, I have a second growth to pick.

Are there any edible treasures near you, waiting to be harvested this summer?

Rhubarb-Strawberry Pie

Combine 4 cups sliced rhubarb (8 to 12 stalks) and 31/2 cups hulled and quartered strawberries (about 500 g) in a large bowl.
Add 11/4 cups granulated sugar, 1/3 cup minute tapioca and the zest of 1 orange. Let stand for 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 F. Roll out dough for 1 double-crust pie pastry in a 9-inch pie plate.
Spread filling evenly into crust. Cover with the second crust.
Brush top crust with 1 egg, lightly beaten, or 1 tbsp milk.
Sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake on bottom rack for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 F and bake until crusts are golden, 45 to 60 minutes. Cool completely, at least 2 hours, before serving.


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