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Rambunctious rhubarb

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By Virginia Phillips

Rhubarb elicits strong feelings, divides families. You seek or shun the pucker power of this rambunctious beauty. Its virile ruby stalks may also seem quaintly yesteryear, like elderberries or crab apples, and out of the ken of many under 50.

Hilary Schramm picks rhubarb at the family farm near Jeannette. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

But as sure as the end of April brings lilacs, the rhubarb partisans appear in force. Spring for them starts with the tart tonic thrill of rhubarb pie, crunch, slump, cobbler, upside-down cake or even a savory chutney to slather on a ham sandwich.

I am a Rhubarb Rooter and so is Hilary Schramm, 44, third-generation farmer, owner with his brothers and dad of Schramm's Farms and Orchards near Jeannette.

We're standing on a sunny hilltop where Hilary is showing off his plants, lusty thigh-high tuffets of elephant ear leaves, curving around the brow of the hill.

He likes rhubarb enough to munch it raw. I take a chew. Hmm. Sour cherry and Swiss chard. The plant, a native of China, is botanically a vegetable.

Sure it's sour. What's pursing our lips is acid: acetic, succinic, lactic, malic and citric. The leaves must go to the compost: They contain another acid, oxalic, which is toxic. Rhubarb is 95 percent water. It cooks quickly with sugar, volume shrinking, crimson fading to pink, sourness tamed to a tantalizing tang.

A look at favorite recipe sources shows a lack of rhubarb imagination. I think about my dad's rhubarb, an embodiment for him of tart-sweet British childhood desserts on his grandmother's farm in Northern Ireland. So I go back in time -- to a tattered family copy of "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management":

"Rhubarb was comparatively little known till within the last 20 or 30 years," says Mrs. Beeton in 1890, "but is now cultivated in almost every British garden."

Rooting for rhubarb

In addition to individual farm markets, rhubarb is often available at farmers' markets with such sponsors as Pittsburgh Citiparks.

Here's a sampling of farms that grow rhubarb. The season can last into July or even early fall.

King's Farm, 41 King Road, Valencia, 724-898-3487.

Bluebird Farms, 86663 Fife Road, Cadiz, Ohio, 740-945-0217. This farm sells organic rhubarb.

McKinney Farm, 216 Pflug Road, New Brighton, 724-452-0391.

Schramm Farms and Orchards, 1002 Blank Road, near Jeannette. 724-744-7320.

-- Suzanne Martinson


Beeton's recipe No. 1851 for Puff Pastry Rhubarb Tart is the inspiration I need. Updated with supermarket frozen puff pastry, it proves a winner. Quickly assembled, a smashing square with marching rows of glistening pink and green slices, it is festive and crunchy, nice with a gob of whipped cream.

Additional satisfying recipes come from the Schramm family and the Internet. We all agree you should team rhubarb and strawberries in a classic pie or jam. Pair it also with its natural ally, silky custard, topped with crunchy streusel. A one-step sour cream custard and a ready-rolled pie crust from the dairy case make this a speedy favorite.

The custard pie is a good choice, too, to win over a rhubarb doubter. My neighbor Eugene, who tolerates any amount of "sour," as in lemons and sour cherries, has a tyrannical taste bud that brings out the "bitter" in chard, cauliflower, beets, asparagus -- and particularly rhubarb. He endorses this pie. It is my family's favorite, too.

Simpler yet, stew rhubarb gently -- it cooks quickly, don't let it turn into mush -- and serve it warm over ice cream, as the Schramms do, or combine chilled poached rhubarb with blood oranges, a few dried currants and slivered zest for an eye-popping compote.

At Schramm's, the just-cut, bright-red, crisp homegrown stalks sell for $1.99 a pound. Field-grown rhubarb packs more flavor, too.

The Schramms, Bavarians from Germany, have been around this area since Hilary's dad's uncle dug trenches atop Mount Washington, fearing an invasion by Dixie troops in the Civil War. In 1864, the family began farming in Ross. They moved to Jeannette in 1981.

All three boys followed family tradition, all learned farming at Penn State, despite their father's efforts to dissuade them from being farmers.

Frozen puff pastry makes Rhubarb Puff Pastry Tart an easy treat. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette, food styling by Marlene Parrish)

"I tried everything to stop all three of them," says Eugene, 79, who still works 6 1/2 days a week. Hilary's daughter, Carolyn, eldest of four, is a Penn State agriculture student who will be a teaching assistant in the Governor's School for Agriculture, a summer program for talented high school students.

But you don't need book learning to grow rhubarb, Hilary explains, pulling aside a rhubarb plant's leaf canopy and parting its stalks to reveal a root crown cresting above ground. Each crown can be divided to create new plants. The third year after planting, harvest and continue for the 10-year life of the plant. The brighter the sun, the redder the stalks. Rhubarb can be harvested all summer, if you water, and again in fall.

The Schramms stop picking around July 4, too preoccupied with summer and fall crops to bother.

If you find field-grown rhubarb, buy some to freeze. Chop in 1/4-inch slices and freeze in 4-cup lots, just right for most uses.

For details: Schramm Farms and Orchards, 1002 Blank Road, near Jeannette. Phone: 724-744-7320. Call for directions.

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator living in Mt. Lebanon.

Related Recipes:

Rhubarb Sour Cream Custard Streusel Pie
Elegant Rhubarb Puff Square
Rhubarb Sauce
Rhubarb Chutney

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