Beatrice Ojakangas

Recipes from the Scandinavian Chef

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Location: Duluth, Minnesota, United States


Rhubarb time again

It's that miracle again. We know it's spring when we begin to get excited about rhubarb.

One day it looks like there's nothing alive out there. A couple days later a pinkish knob pushes through the ground, and in a day or so, leaves appear. A week later (we're talking Northern Minnesota here in the middle of May), the stalks are six inches long.

Just when I thought my rhubarb was getting a good start, my neighbor and friend, Carol Settergren, is already giving it away! And now, the end of May, rhubarb season is in full swing. The rain hasn't hurt the rhubarb at all; it's crisp and there's enough for juice and pie and all kinds of desserts.

Rhubarb, this first fruit of the season, is riddled with contradictions. Botanically it's a vegetable, a member of the buckwheat family. It thrives in areas having cold winters and dry soil.

Those who love rhubarb, love it. Those who don't, don't. Another of its contradictions, the plant itself is both delicious and toxic. The thick, fleshy, celery-like stalks are edible -- the leaves and the roots contain toxic oxalic acid.

Somebody told me that if you have any weeds you'd like to kill, just cover them with rhubarb leaves -- although I haven't managed to get rid of comfrey that way. The leaves have even been used for cleaning aluminum pans and tanning animal hides.

Even those who don't particularly love rhubarb often grow it for its looks. It will grow almost anywhere in good soil or poor, with no attention. A real ``no brainer'' for landscaping, because it makes such a nice, green filler, hiding the contact zones around outhouses and barns. Some people line their driveways with it.

Rhubarb, which is native to Siberia, was brought to this country in the 1700s. It became known as ``pie plant,'' indicating the way the plant is most frequently put to use.

Today it is commercially grown in California, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Washington, although Utica, Mich., calls itself ``Rhubarb Capitol of the World.''

About growing rhubarb

The best way to get successful plants is to get a root from a neighbor, a local farmer or a nursery. These roots will have acclimated themselves to the local climate. Plant or divide rhubarb roots in the early spring -- for us that means anytime in May or June. Don't expect to harvest rhubarb until next year.

When you first plant rhubarb, it needs a lot of water until it establishes its long tap root. After that, it doesn't require care or attention at all, although the best fertilizer is one that is high in nitrogen (the best is ``manure tea''). When seed stalks and flowers develop, cut them off from the base of the plant as soon as they appear and discard them.

Harvesting rhubarb

Pull rather than cut the stalks from the plant. The county extension service recommends that you do your harvesting before July 4. (Do it quickly before you head off to the parade!) After the Fourth of July, rhubarb becomes coarse and dry. The plants also need time to recover for the next season's harvest.

Rhubarb lovers sweet on that tart

Pucker up, rhubarb lovers: You know how sour it can be, so make sure you've got lots of suger in the canister before you start cooking.

Keep in mind that the green variety tends to be more tart than the red variety. Select the thickest, lushest stalks for cooking. Pull off any strings, if you like, but it isn't necessary to peel them.

When I have an abundance of rhubarb, I usually cut it up, layer it with sugar in my Finnish steamer -- the ``mehu maija'' -- and make rhubarb juice. It's wonderful served hot, but it also makes a delicious punch simply mixed with ginger ale and poured over ice.

Rhubarb Juice in the Finnish juicer ("mehu maija")

Trim leaves and ends of the rhubarb stems and wash the stalks. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces; measure. Put the rhubarb into the perforated steaming basket and set it over the juice kettle. Add 1 to 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar for every 20 cups of rhubarb. Fill the water kettle and place over high heat. Heat until water boils and steaming begins.

Steam will rise into the rhubarb, and as it cooks, clear juice will drain into the pan. Open the drain tube to drain the juice. Refrigerate juice or drain into hot, sterilized canning jars, top with canning lids and process in a boiling water bath to seal. Yield varies with the juiciness of the rhubarb.

And if you don't have a mehu maija to call your own, you still can easily make Rhubarb Juice.

Rhubarb Juice

3 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/2-inch pieces (1 pound)

5 cups water

1 cup granulated sugar

Combine rhubarb, water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool, then pour through a fine sieve and chill. Refrigerate up to 1 week. Sweeten to taste and serve alone, or mix with ginger ale or lemon-flavored soda. Makes 5 cups.

Rhubarb Creme Brulee

6 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/2-inch pieces (2 pounds)

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

5 egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 3/4 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Arrange rhubarb in an even layer in the baking dish and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender and the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Scoop the rhubarb into six (3/4 cup) individual ovenproof dessert dishes or eight (1/2 cup) custard cups. Sprinkle each with granulated sugar.

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and vanilla. Heat the cream to simmering. Whisk the cream into the egg yolks. Pour the cream mixture over the rhubarb, dividing the mixture equally. Place into a larger pan and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the dishes.

Loosely cover with foil and bake until set, about 50 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack. Just before serving, sprinkle 1 tablespoon brown sugar evenly over each custard and caramelize with a blowtorch, moving evenly back and forth just over the sugar until it's evenly melted. Or you can caramelize the sugar under the broiler. Set the dishes 2-3 inches from the heat until the sugar is evenly melted. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Ginger Rhubarb Compote

5 cups fresh rhubarb, sliced 1/2 inch

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger

Whipped cream

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and ginger in a 2-quart glass baking dish, cover and microwave at HIGH power for 5 minutes until rhubarb is tender; stir. Taste. Add more sugar to taste. Serve with whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.

Here's a recipe from my friend Carol Settergren -- a three-layer dessert consisting of a crust, a custard-like filling and a fluffy meringue on the very top. This luscious, light-as-air wonder will serve a crowd.

Aunt Minnie's Rhubarb Fluff

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut up

5 cups rhubarb, cut 1/2 inch

6 eggs, separated

2-3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup undiluted evaporated milk

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch cake pan with nonstick spray. In a bowl or in the food processor, combine the flour, sugar and butter together and process or blend using a hand mixer until the butter is completely blended into the flour. Press the dry mixture firmly into the bottom of the cake pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until layer is firm to the touch but not browned.

Spread the rhubarb pieces evenly over the baked crust. Mix the egg yolks with 2 cups of the sugar, salt, evaporated milk and 6 tablespoons flour. Pour over the rhubarb evenly. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the rhubarb layer is set.

Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar. With beater going at high speed, beat in the remaining 3/4 cup sugar until stiff.

Spread over the rhubarb layer. Sprinkle with the coconut. Bake for 10 minutes longer or until lightly browned. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 cups rhubarb, sliced 1/2 inch

4 cups strawberries, sliced

1 1/2 cups uncooked rolled oats

1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch baking dish. Combine the sugar and cornstarch; add the rhubarb and strawberries and toss until fruit is coated. Spread evenly in the baking dish. Combine the rolled oats, brown sugar, butter, flour and cinnamon until crumbly. Sprinkle over the rhubarb and strawberries. Bake for 30 minutes until bubbly. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream. Makes 6 servings.

Carol also makes the old favorite apple pie squares with rhubarb replacing the apples, adding a bit more sugar. I tried it and we loved it.

Rhubarb Pie Squares


2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powdefr

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or 1 cup lard

1 egg, separated

2/3 cup milk


1 cup cornflakes, measured before crushing

5 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Mix in the butter until butter pieces are about the size of peas. Mix the egg and the milk and pour over the dry ingredients. Toss with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. Gather the dough into a ball and divide into two parts.

Roll dough out to fit into an 11-by-15-inch jelly roll pan. It may be easier to roll out dough to fit half of the pan at a time. Sprinkle evenly with the crushed cornflakes. In a large bowl, mix the rhubarb with the sugar and cinnamon. Spread the mixture evenly over the pastry lined pan. Dot with the butter.

Roll out the remaining dough and fit over the filling, sealing the edges all around the pan. Beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Spread the egg mixture evenly over the top crust of the pie. Bake for about 40-45 minutes until the pastry is browned.

While it bakes, mix the powdered sugar and lemon juice until icing can be drizzled. Drizzle over the top of the baked squares. Cool. Cut into squares to serve. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

The crunchy and sweet topping on these tender muffins balances the tartness of the rhubarb. This recipe comes from my rhubarb-loving sister-in-law, Kathie Luoma.

Kathie's Rhubarb Nut Muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup fresh rhubarb, cut in 1/2 inch dice


1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat 12 muffin cups with nonstick spray. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt.

Make a hole in the center of the dry ingredients and add the oil, egg, buttermilk and vanila. Mix just until dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in the rhubarb. Scoop batter into the muffin cups. Combine the brown sugar, walnuts and cinnamon. Sprinkle mixture over the tops of the muffins, dividing equally. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or just until a skewer inserted into a muffin comes out clean and dry, or until the muffin feels firm in the center. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Makes 12 muffins.


Anonymous Jennifer Spencer said...

After juicing, (using the steamer method,) what do you recommend doing with the pulp?

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Carolyn said...

We've had a bumper crop of rhubarb this spring and after freezing and drying much of it, I'm ready to try making juice. Thanks for all the recipe suggestions.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love pulling it, peeling it, "salting" (not sugaring) it and eating's delicious raw.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pulp left in the steam juicer is just green slimy fibrous stuff. I compost it (I use compost worm bin, but any composting method). If you don't have a compost bin or pile, dig a hole and dump it in. No need to put sugar in while juicing: you can add it to taste later. Just as I like water with a touch of lemon juice, it's good with rhubarb juice instead. I tried DRYING diced rhubarb, but it was SO sour!!!

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

If you don't use a steamer, you can dissolve the sugar by pouring the hot liquid directly onto the sugar. Place the sieve over the sugar. Once the hot liquid hits the sugar, give it a stir to dissolve. I let it drain about an hour before discarding the pulp. Serve chilled over ice, with citrus slices if you like. Everyone who tries my juice says the same word: refreshing! I use a ratio 1 cup of sugar to 1 gallon juice.

6:45 PM  

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