Feel the Force
For some reason rhubarb has always struck me as faintly ludicrous – not just the rather rude-sounding name but its appearance too. The thrusting stems and umbrella-like crinkled leaves suggest it might come from a far-away tropical paradise rather than the homely rhubarb patch. That said, the sub-tropical gardens in Abbotsbury, Dorset, are famous for the Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) that grows there. The leaf is over three metres wide and is said to be 'something of a record'. But I digress. Native to Siberia, domestic rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) has regular-sized leaves and prefers a wet cold climate.
I particularly like the early forced variety with its distinctive shocking-pink slim stems and tiny lime-green leaves. It is the only fresh home-grown fruit (though theoretically a vegetable) to be found in winter. Grown in 'the rhubarb triangle' of West Yorkshire, forced rhubarb is painstakingly nurtured in mysterious candle-lit sheds – a long slow process that demands the same level of devotion given to fine wine or cheese production, for example. Such is its value that it has Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status, an award given to top-quality products produced only in a designated area, putting it in the same category as Parma ham and champagne.
Early outdoor-grown rhubarb is in season around now until May, so make the most of it while you can. The stems are thicker than forced rhubarb, and the colour a deep red tinged with green. As the season progresses, the stems become increasingly thick and coarse, and the flavour changes from merely sour to excessively so. Rhubarb stalks are never eaten raw, and the leaves are discarded as they are poisonous.
Rhubarb, forced or otherwise, suffers from an old-fashioned image, causing many of a certain age to shudder at best-forgotten memories. As the distinguished author Alan Davidson wrote in The Oxford Companion to Food, "the combination of rhubarb and custard is as irresistible to some as it is off-putting to others". Coming from the latter camp, I take the view that rhubarb has far greater culinary potential.
Though traditionally used in desserts, rhubarb is surprisingly versatile. I have put it to good use in mulligatawny soup. It adds splashes of pink to an otherwise beige mixture, and provides the necessary tartness. It is also good with lamb in a Moroccan-style tagine, or served puréed as a tart sauce with mackerel or roast pork.
Moving on to desserts, young rhubarb is good in a carefully cooked compote, with or without custard. It is very fragile so cook it only briefly to prevent it disintegrating into a pink pulp. If that happens, just add some sliced bananas to give it substance, or whiz with cream and serve as a fool. It also makes lovely tarts and pies, and chutney and jam. With its glorious colour and powerful tart flavour, however, rhubarb is perhaps best of all in a stunningly beautiful pink-tinged Rhubarb and Angelica Sorbet.
Rhubarb and angelica go together remarkably well, and both are conveniently
in season in spring. You will need the fresh herb rather than the crystallised stems used in baking. It is a magnificent perennial that grows like a giant celery plant and has a huge flower head. If you don't have any, beg some from
a herb-growing neighbour or buy it from a good garden centre. It's very easy
Recipe © Christine McFadden from The Farm Shop Cookbook published by Absolute Press/Bloomsbury
© Christine McFadden, April 2014