Home on the range

The rites of spring

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Rhubarb makes people nervous. Maybe because it's odd looking: pink celery. Maybe because it's a vegetable posing as fruit. Maybe because its dark, craggy leaf harbors poison, while its stringy stalk is stocked with acerbic juice. Startling.

Rhubarb favors cool weather and inspires heated debate. Poached or jellied? Crumble or pie? With strawberry or solo? Those who live among rhubarb hold barbed opinions. Once my mother invited my friend Sarah in for rhubarb pie laced with orange peel. Shocking Sarah speechless.

"Rhubarb" is an actual synonym for tiff, spat or fracas.

So when I set out to cook up this year's crop, I consulted my mother and Sarah. Separately. Mom counseled orange peel. Sarah forbade strawberries. Rhubarb, she said, tastes uniquely like rhubarb. Why muddy the mix? Sarah also declared cornstarch the devil's handmaiden, or something.

Still, I felt I better make my own — informed — decisions. I baked many a variation, editing down to a simple pie: rhubarb, in tart purity, underlined by lemon, balanced by sugar and sandwiched between super short pastry. Thickened — devil-may-care — with cornstarch.

My final pie was a delight. As bracing and bright as other rites of spring — the clean house, signed tax return and freshly turned garden, itching to run wild.

Honest rhubarb pie

Prep: 1 hour
Bake: 45 minutes
Makes: 9-inch pie (serves 8)

Prepared double-crust pie pastry (recipe follows)
6 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds) rhubarb, trimmed and sliced crosswise into ½-inch tabs
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Zest of 2 lemons
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Roll out pastry for the bottom of the pie. Line the pie plate. Chill. Roll out pastry for the top of the pie.

In a large bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Scrape rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie plate. Cover with top pastry. Trim and crimp edges. Snip a star pattern into the center, to vent.

Set pie on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 400-degree oven and bake until golden, 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue to bake until crust is golden brown and juices bubble thick and pink, about 25 minutes. If the perimeter seems to be browning too quickly, shield with a pie halo (or the equivalent — a hoop fashioned from crumpled foil.) Cool completely. Slice and serve.

Double-crust pie pastry:
Measure into the food processor: 2½ cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon fine salt. Pulse to mix. Drop in 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut up. Pulse a few times. Add 8 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening (such as Crisco). Pulse until mixture looks crumbly, darkens slightly and clumps when squeezed. Turn out into a large mixing bowl. Drizzle in up to 8 tablespoons cold water, mixing gently with a rubber spatula, until clumps form. Divide in two (one portion a little larger than the other); pat each into a disk. Wrap in waxed paper and chill at least 1 hour. Use larger disk for the pie bottom, smaller one for the top.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at leahreskin@aol.com.
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