This time of year, rhubarb starts to appear in green grocers and supermarkets. This early rhubarb has been ‘forced’ in darkened pots or sheds. Covering the crowns of rhubarb to prevent light reaching them encourages the plant to make early growth.
Forced rhubarb is paler, smoother and usually less bitter than later crops, owing to the plant not being able to properly photosynthesise and paler stems not needing as much sugar to balance the tartness. This makes rhubarb a wonderful early crop at a time of year when there may be little else growing.
The plants themselves lay dormant in the late winter with the promising buds emerging in early to mid spring. It is at this point that they are covered by upturned plant pots or for more professional results you can get specialised terracotta forcing pots. The idea is to create an environment where no light can get through and the buds are growing in a relatively warm micro climate inside the pot.
In Currabinny, we never grew rhubarb ourselves, preferring to get it off more experienced and therefore adventurous neighbours. One of our neighbours even had their own beautiful victorian rhubarb forcing pots which had no doubt been passed down to them through the generations. Unfortunately, we had no such growing pedigree in my family but we were more than enthusiastic rhubarb consumers.
Rhubarb is so unique in its flavour and because of its general tartness can be utilised for both sweet and savoury culinary endeavours.
When buying rhubarb in the shops, choose fresh, crisp stalks and peel off any stringy bits. Avoid limp stalks or ones with a lot of brown discolouration.
The recipes we have included are all refreshingly simple but hopefully they show a good variation of different ways of cooking with rhubarb.
A classic combination of silky smooth rhubarb and crunchy, crumbly streusel. We love any form of crumble in these still chilly weeks of early spring.
For this we usually use store-bought shortcrust pastry but feel free to make your own.
We usually make this as a comforting, last minute dessert when we have a glut of rhubarb in the house, which is common as we are never able to resist those crimson stalks when we pass them in the greengrocers.
We find creme fraiche to be a far superior accompaniment to this tart rather than cream or custard. The tartness suits the rhubarb far better.
For the streusel topping
Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface, then line a 23cm tart tin with it. Chill in the fridge.
Tip the rhubarb into a roasting tray with the sugar and juice, then toss together. Cover with foil, then bake for 30-40 minutes. Tip into a sieve over a bowl, then reserve the syrup. While the rhubarb is cooking, press a sheet of baking paper into the tart case, tip in baking beans, then bake for 20 minutes. Remove beans and paper, then bake for 10 minutes more.
Rub the topping ingredients, except the almonds, together until crumbly. When the case is cooked, lower oven to 180C/ fan 160C/gas 4. Spoon the rhubarb evenly over the case and crumble over the topping. Scatter with almonds, then bake for 20 mins. Leave the tart until just warm, then turn out and serve with the rhubarb syrup and some crème fraîche.
We cannot describe to you how well the flavours of rhubarb can be appreciated in chutney form.
The natural tartness of rhubarb, its gorgeously thick and stringy texture and beautiful crimson colour makes for perfect bedfellows with the brown sugar, cider vinegar and a whole host of spices.
We have found this perfect for our late night cheese toasties, thickly spooned onto the bread, covered in slices of whatever bits and bobs of various cheeses we have in the fridge, closed over with another slice of bread and pan-fried.
For somewhat healthier pairings, it also goes surprisingly well with oily fish like mackerel and of course a simple cheese and charcuterie board would be perfect.
Place all the ingredients in a medium to big saucepan and bring to the boil before reducing the heat to medium.
Simmer gently, stirring regularly until slightly thickened. The rhubarb will break down completely and the mixture should become nice and thick and sticky.
Test that it is done using the back of a spoon to test for thickness.
Sterilise a medium jar and fill with the chutney. Keep in a cool dark place until ready to eat, transferring to the fridge once opened where it should keep for a month or two.
This is about as simple and seasonal as it gets. Use as much Rhubarb as you can while it is in such abundance.
Simply heating on a medium high pan down to a pulp with sugar and a little water is all you need to do here in terms of actual cooking.
I like to pick up those wonderful large Italian meringues you can find nowadays, flavoured with rosewater, pistachio or hazelnut. Supermarket meringues nests will work fine as well, this is all about minimum effort after all, we won’t even mention making our own for this recipe.
Trim the rhubarb and cut into short pieces about 1 inch long. Place in a small pan with water and sugar and cook in a medium high heat until the rhubarb has lost its shape and become like a sort of thick compote. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl whisk the cream until thick and forming gentle peaks with your whisk. Be very careful not to over whisk, you want a nice softly whisked cream and not something on its way to butter.
Break up the meringue with your hands and combine with the cream, gently using a large spoon. When the rhubarb has cooled, carefully swirl into the cream and meringue mixture and serve either in a large serving platter or individually with a little grated orange zest on top.