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We can’t wait for rhubarb!

First We Eat: Here’s a pie recipe to use up the last of the frozen or the first of this season’s rhubarb

Dave and I celebrated a significant anniversary recently. We’d met in Banff, at a writing retreat. During that two-week span, he’d flirted shamelessly, held my chair, chatted me up, sat with me at meals, taken me swimming and to dinner, everything but serenaded me. For that, we waited 10 years, and then it was an unlikely pair of romance experts who sang: porcupines.

We’ve had the sharp-quilled beasts in our neighbourhood ever since our arrival here on the farm nearly eight years ago, and my mom has regaled me often enough with tales of pulling quills from multiple dogs’ muzzles during her many years in residence. Recently, Jake, our golden retriever, not a barky dog, stared pointedly at the deck railing, then at me, then back at the railing. An intrepid porky perched there, then scrambled onto the Manitoba maple that overlooks the south deck. The next morning, the creature was gone, and so was a lot of the bark from the lower girdle of the tree.

A few days later, while I worked upstairs in my studio in the early evening just as the sun was setting, the silence was interrupted by an unfamiliar series of noises somewhere between a cat’s meow and an ewok’s squeak. Flashlight in hand, I stepped outside onto the upper balcony. Nothing out of the ordinary. But then I spotted two unusual lumps in the nearby maple tree, a particularly gnarly tree that my grandfather had planted as part of a windbreak in 1946.

On closer — cautious — inspection from a respectful distance, the lumps resolved into a pair of courting porcupines. He sat on a lower bough, and she, considerably larger, perched on what looked like a more fragile upper branch, and sang to her suitor.

The following days, with no sign of the courting couple, I took Jake outside and we had a closer look at the trees overhanging the fenced backyard where Jake chases tennis balls and plastic rings. The branches of several large trees — including the maple where the porcupines had balanced themselves — had been denuded; the trees’ second layer, the cambium, gleamed in the sunlight like polished alabaster.

The porcupines have not yet returned. Dave still doesn’t sing to me, anniversary or no. But we expect to see baby porcupines — rather unbelievably called “porcupettes,” (surely the cutest name for baby animals yet!) — in the neighbourhood later this year. Back in the kitchen, I decided to make pie to celebrate our anniversary. We can go back outside later and look for more lovelorn beasts, but first we eat. Next time: taking stock.

Rhubarb-Raspberry Pie

Rhubarb is nicknamed “pie plant.” The first fruit to emerge from the spring garden, it is the ideal tonic for palates jaded by winter, and it’s incredibly prolific. Turn some of last year’s rhubarb from the freezer into a syrup to serve in sparkling water, and use the last frozen packages — or the new season’s, if you can wait that long — to make this pie. It’s even better than my Gram Smith’s.

Pastry

  • 1 c. flour
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter Salt to taste
  • 4-8 tbsp. ice water

Filling

  • 6-8 c. sliced rhubarb
  • 1 apple, peeled and diced
  • 1 c. raspberries (frozen are fine) 3/4 c. sugar, or to taste
  • Zest of 1/2 orange +
  • 3/4 c. orange juice
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg 1-2 tbsp. minced fresh or crystallized ginger
  • 2 tbsp. flour

Streusel topping

  • 1/2 c. shredded coconut 1/2 c. sliced or slivered almonds or walnuts
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 c. light brown sugar, or to taste 1/2 c. melted butter

To make the pastry, combine flour, butter and salt on the counter until mealy. Add the water, then smear bits of dough across the counter once to form a cohesive dough. Form into a disc and let rest. Roll out and drape into a pie plate. Trim and flute edges.

Set the oven to 425 F. If you have one, put a baking stone on the bottom shelf.

Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl. Mix well, then pour into the prepared pastry. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F. Cover pie with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Mix together the topping ingredients in a separate bowl, then sprinkle the crumbs over the filling. Bake uncovered for 20-30 minutes, or until bubbly and brown. Serve warm.

Serves 6-8.

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