OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she offers a recipe for a pleasantly tart, no-bake rhubarb meringue pie.
This week had us a bit in the weeds — between having to hook up irrigation in the garden to prevent all our tender seedlings from getting cooked, to rescuing a swarm of bees that tried to escape backyard hives, to developing a recipe that just would not cooperate, it’s definitely been a busy time! But we emerged triumphant, and with a pie at the end of the tunnel. One highlight was inventing new ways to cook with rhubarb — our favorite vegetable that masquerades as a fruit. Though it does have the drawback of wanting to lose its beautiful cerise color when cooked, we in the Superabundant kitchen have a few science hacks up our sleeve. What common ingredient can you add to bring back rhubarb’s color (and then some)? Read on to find out!
Small bites: Warm weather means more fruit, smart compost bins, a tribute to Oregon’s Berry Goddess and more
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Remembering an Oregon berry icon
Bernadine Strik, a horticulturist, researcher, professor and Oregon State University’s own “Berry Goddess” died last month at the age 60. Strik’s groundbreaking scientific research and knack for collaboration directly with berry farmers resulted in a tenfold increase in blueberry production in Oregon — from 1,200 acres to 15,000 acres in a 15-year period. So wide-reaching is Strik’s legacy that her obituary even garnered coverage in the New York Times, but OPB’s Crystal Ligori wrote her own loving tribute, noting that Strik “leaves behind her husband, two daughters, and an unmatched legacy as the Berry Goddess of Oregon.”
New tech for an old problem
Oregon State University may have lost a legend, but the Cascades campus in Bend did receive a grant to pursue research on developing a smart compost bin that tracks household food waste. Household food waste accounts for roughly 37% of all food waste in the United States — a problem that amounts to around $400 billion each year and most egregiously, in a country where 10% of the populace is food-insecure. Tracking food waste in homes could be an important first step in reducing it, and can eventually be expanded to reduce food waste in the institutional sector as well.
A promising start to the growing season
The Capital Press reports that Pacific Northwest fruit growers are cautiously optimistic about this year’s growing season. Following a cold, wet spring, the sudden burst of warm May weather has helped bees get to the busy work of pollinating. Cherry, apple and pear growers are expecting a strong showing this year, particularly compared to last year’s paltry yields. Cherry lovers, keep an eye out mid-June, when picking should kick off.
Remembering the Mount St Helens eruption
…or as we like to call it, “when Loowit blew it.” This week in 1980, locals may have been surprised to see white ash snowing down from the sky, but all that fine tephra made for some very productive soils. In fact, the Northwest has many volcanoes and many millennia of ash fall to thank for its soil richness.
Watch the Soils episode of “Superabundant.”
Good things in markets
All this warm weather means a productive growing season, so look out for early strawberries and the first basil. The sweetest carrots, leeks and snap peas are plentiful now as the salad turnips, beets and radishes begin tapering off. Tender fennel bulbs are showing up as well, and local asparagus is still going strong. Chive blossoms are beginning to show up as well. Elders have begun to bloom, so expect elderflowers to start showing up on menus in finer restaurants. East of the Cascades, most farmers’ markets will be kicking off around Memorial Day weekend — get ready!
Recipe: No-bake rhubarb meringue pie
Rhubarb season is at its peak, and the recent unseasonably hot weather has made it more important than ever to have a solid no-bake pie recipe under your belt. But we’re going to be honest about something: this recipe was a challenge to develop* — the eggs and butter turned the beautiful magenta rhubarb syrup into a pale peach curd; like us, Swiss meringue wants to melt in hot and muggy weather. The first attempt refused to set and the recipe was adjusted accordingly (don’t worry, the runny curd and melted meringue were salvaged and turned into cake). It helps to have a growth mindset while undergoing recipe development — as with any scientific endeavors, we can learn from our mistakes! — especially when the recipe can be abandoned at several points and still give you something wonderful to show for your trouble. We’ve noted these so you can feel good about throwing in the towel at any point along the way. Serves 8.
Note: this recipe comes together fairly quickly, but plan a couple extra hours for chilling between steps.
6 ounces plain butter shortbread cookies or vanilla wafer cookies
4 tbsp butter, melted
3 tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt
1 ¼ lbs rhubarb (about 3 large stalks)
1 ½ cups sugar
2 c water
½ tsp citric acid or ¼ cup lemon juice (to brighten the color from beige-y purple to bright fuchsia)
4 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the meringue) + 2 whole eggs
4 tbsp cornstarch
6 tbsp room-temperature butter
4 egg whites
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp cream of tartar
- Make the pie crust: crush the cookies into fine crumbs using a food processor or by placing the cookies in a zip-top bag and bashing the daylights out of them with a rolling pin. Stir the melted butter, sugar, and salt into the crumbs to form a thick paste, and then press the paste into a greased 9″ pie dish, applying enough pressure to make the paste reach up the sides of the pan as evenly as you can muster. Chill the pie shell in the fridge for an hour.
- Make rhubarb syrup: trim any leafy bits off the rhubarb and roughly chop it. Add the sugar, water, citric acid or lemon juice and rhubarb to a medium size saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the rhubarb is very soft, about 5 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine-meshed sieve, mashing gently with a rubber spatula — you don’t want to scrape all the pulp through but you do want to try and get as much of the liquid out as possible. Reserve the pulp for another use. (If you want, you can stop here and use the syrup in granitas, soda, or a rhubarb margarita; either way, you’ll have some leftover syrup.)
- Make the curd. Whisk 1 ½ cups of the syrup with the egg yolks, eggs and cornstarch in a medium saucepan, taking care to whip out all the lumps. Heat over medium low, whisking constantly (and taking care not to let it scorch!), until the curd becomes very thick like custard. Turn off the burner and whisk in the butter one tablespoon at a time until it’s melted in and fully incorporated. If it looks a bit lumpy, use a hand mixer to smooth things out. Lay a slip of plastic wrap on top of the curd to prevent a skin from forming and set aside until cooled completely; if you’d like to expedite the cooling you can scrape the curd into a shallow pan and set it on ice packs. (If you leave out the cornstarch you’ll have about 2 ¼ cups of spectacular rhubarb curd to spoon onto scones, shortcake, or pound cake but sadly, it will be peach-colored, not bright pink.)
- Make the Swiss meringue. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the egg whites and sugar. Bring a pot with an inch of water to a boil and set the bowl on top (make sure the pot is slightly smaller than the mixer bowl — we’re making a bain-marie/double boiler). Using a rubber spatula, gently stir the egg whites, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed to keep the sugar from settling at the bottom. Once the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites have reached 175º, transfer the bowl to the stand mixer with the whisk attachment and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks are formed. (Alternatively, you can whisk by hand.)
- Assemble the pie. Scrap the cooled rhubarb curd into the chilled pie shell and smooth the top with a spatula. Pile the meringue on top, making artful swirls and dollops with the back of a spoon. Torch the meringue on top (or use the broiler, but keep a VERY close eye on it!) until golden brown. Serve chilled and eat it the same day, if possible — meringue topping will start to weep if it sits on a custard pie for too long.
* On the first stab at the rhubarb syrup, Heather wandered off for a moment to answer a few emails and then smelled the aroma of dark caramel wafting into her office. With a cinematic “nooooooooo,” she ran back to the stove to see that her pot had been utterly carbonized. This is where an old barista trick came in handy: Puro Caff. The detergent is usually best as a degreaser for getting coffee pots and espresso machines clean but if you add a spoonful to the pot and boil some water, most of the burnt-on gunk will flake off. On another attempt, she scorched the curd and then forgot to add the butter. Folks, it was a journey.