Rhubarb stalks (petioles) should be rigid — snappable, not bendy — and as deep a pink-red colour as possible. Thick, woody stalks need more sugar and/or time stewing than thinner, more tender stalks (which forced rhubarb naturally is). If you do get bendy stalks, cut off the ends and put them in a vase of water to firm up. You can freeze rhubarb stalks whole, but stewed rhubarb takes up less space.
Raw rhubarb is the last word in sharpness and sourness. Dip the end of a raw stalk in a bowl of sugar, bite it off, chew — and feel yourself close one eye while the other bugs out, cartoon-style, and your face contorts in the manner of one sucking a particularly vicious Acid Drop. Only sugar, fat, and cooking, can mellow the intense astringency. This is why rhubarb is often used in sweet dishes, but its tartness also ‘cuts’ the fat in savoury dishes, to achieve a pleasing balance. Niki Segnit (The Flavour Thesaurus) pairs it with black pudding on this basis. Some claim that a pinch of bicarbonate of soda reduces the amount of sugar needed.
Peel, chop and simmer rhubarb stalks in water & sugar (icing sugar dissolves quickest, but some prefer dark treacly muscovado sugar). After 15 minutes or so the stalks soften and mellow. Don’t chop the stalks smaller than 10cm pieces — there is much pleasure in swirling long strands of stewed rhubarb around a bowl, lifting them with a fork like a sweet vegetable spaghetti. Serve stewed rhubarb with cream, icecream, or — inevitably — custard. The best icecreams for this are vanilla, strawberry or ginger.
Stir a little rosewater into stewed rhubarb for a delicate scented version (use icing sugar; rosewater will not survive any contest with muscovado). Serve cold or warm
Alternatively, vanilla essence adds a stronger note
- RHUBARB & CUSTARD
Never fear to serve the old nursery treat, made with Bird’s Custard Powder — it’s lovely. But for a clever trick (confuse and amaze your friends!) serve rosewater rhubarb with vanilla-infused crème anglaise; it’s a completely different experience
Chop a stalk of rhubarb into little chunks, then mix it into whatever cake mixture you like before baking. Fill the cake with custard cream (custard thickened with butter & sugar) for a Rhubarb & Custard Cake!
- ORANGE RHUBARB
Orange juice or zest, with rhubarb, produces a high level of zing. This makes a good amuse-bouche or palate-cleanser between courses. Or, try rhubarb served with whipped cream flavoured with orange liqueur (eg Grand Marnier or Courvoisier)
Purée stewed rhubarb in a blender, and drizzle over other puddings — ginger cake is good. Or, serve it beside pork (like apple sauce) or salmon or mackerel (trust us). Alternate layers of pink purée and white cream, visible in a large wineglass, make a very pretty pud. Purée is good for those with issues about getting rhubarb strands caught between their teeth
Mix the purée with yoghurt, or cream, or a combination of the two
- TARTS & PIES
Search online for a recipe that suits you. Strawberries are a traditional addition, either whole (eg to decorate the top of a tart), or as strawberry jam (in cake fillings). Strawberries and rhubarb together create a special flavour, reminiscent of pineapple
- JAM & COMPOTE
The Silver Spoon (the Italian ‘bible,’ equivalent to the French Larousse) recommends rhubarb & strawberry compôte. Include some orange rind in rhubarb jam
Rhubarb on its own really can be overpowering. Stew rhubarb and apples together for a risk-free crumble. Try incorporating ginger biscuit crumbs into the crumble mix
Rhubarb is high in vitamins, and may speed up the metabolism. You can point out to superfood fans that it is a member of the buckwheat (the new superfood) family. It can be used to make wine, but opinion is divided on its quality. Early records of rhubarb cuisine go back to 2700BC, when the roots were used in China as a laxative. Americans call it a ‘pie plant’ (you can guess what they mostly use it for). Because of its toe-curling acidity, rhubarb didn’t really become popular until sugar prices dropped, and people could stew the acidity out, in around the 18th century. Rhubarb leaves are toxic, but a human would have to eat about 5kg of bitter leaves to reach a lethal dose. It poses more of a threat to the vegetable patch than to humans: left untended, rhubarb dies back to nothing over winter, then pounces in spring, throwing out massive leaves to drown lesser plants in darkness. On the plus side, rhubarb requires little help from the gardener (other than the occasional attack with a flamethrower)
See our EVENTS calendar for details of the annual Rhubarb Festival held in Wakefield (Yorkshire) every February; the festival website is HERE (but currently not updated — March 2015) or try the FACEBOOK page