Unique flavours of this herbaceous perennial have a short and sweet season

Valerie O’Connor praises one of the first plants of the year, the humble rhubarb, and suggests some nice ways to use it

“HAVE I told you lately that I love rhu... barb?” sang the Gardener. Not as poetic or perhaps romantic as Van the Man’s declarations of devotion and, I figured it was a plea to have something made for him out of the stalks of this pink and woody vegetable.

Yes it’s a veg, not a fruit, a herbaceous perennial to be precise. Given that the leaves are poisonous, it’s hard to figure out how anybody wanted to cook this decorative garden plant, especially as you have to add so much sweetness to it to make it palatable.

The pinky stems of rhubarb do have the most unique flavour so whether you stew it and have it with custard or ice cream, as we used to have as kids, make it into a tart, or doll it up into a crumble, cordial or a schnapps, a jelly or a jam, whoever figured out rhubarb was worth eating uncovered a real treasure.

We get very excited about rhubarb as it’s one of the first plants of the year to produce a harvest and it has a short enough season. Forced rhubarb grown under terracotta cloches or in hothouses has a sweeter taste than the outdoor variety.

Medicinally rhubarb has always been popular due to its high fibre content and how it helps with constipation.

In Chinese medicine it was one of the most common herbs, the root being dried and used to treat stomach ailments and its bitterness being beneficial to the digestive system. Eating more bitter foods is good for us and helps us to digest foods so there are more reasons than just the tasty ones to feast on our pink and green friend.

Rhubarb is also loaded with calcium, one cup containing more than a glass of cow’s milk, (where do you think milk gets its calcium from? The plants that the cows eat). Rhubarb is extremely easy to grow and it just keeps on giving, it requires almost no maintenance and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner or used to spruce up a cocktail too.

One of my favourite ways to get the most from rhubarb is to make it into a cordial. This method preserves the intense muskiness of the flavour while also resulting in a dusky pink-coloured drink. You can enjoy this sophisticated cordial with some sparkling water but a nice top up of prosecco really does the job too.

Rhubarb Cordial

If there was ever a colour of a drink to enchant you, the beautiful, dusky, antique pink of this rhubarb drink will make you swoon, and when you taste it, well, nothing comes close to its cheeky, tart flavour. This goes well with water, fizzy water, champagne or gin. I won’t lie to you and say that this is easy and fast, it isn’t, it’s fiddly but the results are worth it, and as you are making some to store, it’s not all gone in one go.

Sterilise 2 x500ml bottles by washing them and putting them into the oven at 160C for 10 minutes

You will need some muslin and a stick/broom handle and string to drain the liquid.

Ingredients

  • 1½kg (3lb) rhubarb, cleaned and chopped into chunks
  • 1kg (approx) sugar
  • 2-3 Lemons

Put the rhubarb in a pot with 100ml water and bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer it slowly for about 40 minutes until the fruit is very soft

Line a large strainer with muslin, place over a large bowl and tip the rhubarb mush into it, letting it drain. When the dripping has mostly stopped, tie the bag with string at the top and suspend it over the bowl, ensuring that it doesn’t touch the juice. Leave this overnight if possible, draping over a tea-towel to keep any flies out

The next day, measure the juice, for every one litre, add 700g sugar and 50ml lemon juice and reheat this in a pot until the sugar is dissolved.

Bottle your cordial and enjoy it diluted with three parts water for a sophisticated summer drink that’s also full of vitamins. Pour some of the cordial into a glass and top up with your favourite bubbles.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Crumble Bars

You might have to wait a while for the first Irish strawberries but you can use frozen for this recipe. The bars are a treat and really lovely and sticky, a very American style nibble.

Ingredients

  • 200g sliced fresh strawberries
  • 300g chopped fresh rhubarb
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 4 tbsp water
  • 2 eggs
  • 125g cup butter or coconut oil, melted and cooled
  • 75g maple syrup
  • 140g oats
  • 200g white, spelt or gluten free flour
  • 70g brown sugar
  • ½ tsp bread soda
  • ¼ tsp salt (omit if you use salted butter)

In a pan, bring the sliced strawberries, the chopped rhubarb, the honey, and the water to a boil over medium high heat.

Immediately turn down to low heat and allow the mixture to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the strawberries and the rhubarb are tender and the sauce has thickened.

In a small bowl, lightly whisk the egg, add in the melted butter and maple syrup.

In another larger bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and the salt.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix to combine, it will be like a cookie dough.

Reserve one third of the dough, and press the remainder of the dough into the bottom of a greased 20 x 30cm baking tray

Spread the cooled filling over top of the dough, and then crumble the reserved dough over the top.

Bake at 180C for about 25 minutes, or until the crust is firm, and browned.

Cool, and cut into bars or squares. Makes about 20 bars or slices


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