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I went more than thirty years having tasted rhubarb once.  It was my Great Aunt Olivia’s rhubarb pie.

When I was a kid, my family would visit my grandmother in Iowa every few years.  And to welcome us, Aunt Olivia — bless her heart — would always bring us a rhubarb pie.  My parents would grouse about the tart, celery-like flavor, and after picking at a slice or two, the pie would get tossed.  One summer when I was about ten, I wanted to show off the adventurous palate I recently acquired when I had tried — and enjoyed — squid.  So I decided I would have a go at this much-maligned rhubarb pie.

One bite and I knew I should have listened to my parents.

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Interestingly, Saveur notes that rhubarb pie is an Iowa specialty.  But despite my Iowa roots, I didn’t touch rhubarb again until now.  Spring rhubarb was in season at the market, and I got a steal on some stalks.  Not gutsy enough to try rhubarb pie, I opted for a barbecue sauce, where I figured rhubarb’s sour savoriness would be unintrusive.

And I love this barbecue sauce.  It’s similar to a tomato-based barbecue sauce — an unknowing taster would not likely know the difference — but with a crisper, slightly more garden-y flavor.  It also feels lighter than the dense, strongly-flavored Texas or Kansas City style sauces.

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In a tribute to my heritage, I prepped this sauce in the official cookware of the Midwest:  the Crock-Pot®.  But I also provide stovetop instructions.  One could can the extra sauce, or just store in the fridge for use within a couple of months.  I really enjoy this sauce basted onto chicken, as it caramelizes beautifully on the grill, but I’d also recommend it on a slab of pork ribs.

I won’t wait so many years before my next adventure with rhubarb… but I can’t promise I’ll ever give you a rhubarb pie recipe!

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Rhubarb-B-Q Chicken Leg Quarters

Makes 2 pints BBQ sauce and 5 servings of chicken | slow cook overnight

For the Barbecue Sauce

  • 5 stalks rhubarb (between 5 C and 7 + 1/2 C chopped)
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1/2 C apple cider vinegar
  • 1-2 tsp crushed red chilies, or to taste
  • 1 + 1/2 tsp ground mustard
  • 1 tsp coarse salt

For the Chicken

  • 5 chicken leg quarters
  • 1/2 gallon milk
  • 1 + 1/2 Tbsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp crushed red chilies


  1. Rinse chicken and pat dry.  Loosen skin so marinade can sneak under it.  In a large lidded container or stockpot, combine milk, salt, and chilies, and stir until salt is dissolved.  Marinate chicken in milk mixture overnight in refrigerator.
  2. Roughly chop the rhubarb, onion, and bell pepper.  Combine all sauce ingredients into large stockpot or slow cooker.
  3. If using slow cooker:  Lowest setting (“warm”) overnight.
  4. If using stockpot:  Medium-high heat until boiling, cover and reduce heat to barely a simmer, cook for 30-45 minutes until veggies are softened.
  5. Using an immersion blender (or working in batches to transfer to a stand blender), puree sauce until smooth and thick.  If sauce remains too thin after pureeing, return to heat and cook until sauce reaches desired consistency.
  6. Grill chicken on indirect heat on a covered grill maintained at ~300°F.  Grill skin-side down first, for about 15 minutes.  Flip chickens, baste with barbecue sauce (baste under the skin too), then continue to cook for another 30 minutes.  Baste chickens once more about 15 minutes prior to pulling the chicken off the grill.  Ensure chicken has reached an internal temperature of 170°F before removing from grill.
  7. Serve with extra barbecue sauce and sprinkled with fresh herbs.
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