Food and Drink

   

In Season: Rhubarb

Posted by Robert Clark

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Rhubarb is available all year round, but in winter we see the best of the red fleshed varieties – those which are red all the way through rather than having red skin but green flesh. When peeled, the green stemmed varieties miss the rich pink traditionally associated with rhubarb. You can fix this by simmering the red peels in a little sugar syrup and using the syrup as your cooking liquid.

Rhubarb has been part of European cuisine since the Middle Ages. Having been discovered in China rhubarb traveled the Silk Road together with spices and opium, and was expensive. At one time it competed with opium in value until its cultivation was pioneered in Turkey. It was still it exclusive to the wealthy because its sourness required expensive sweeteners which were out of the reach of most of the population until the introduction of cane sugar in the 17th century made sugar a more widely affordable sweetener.

Easily grown in temperate climates it soon became one of the staples of the home gardener, and plants can last for decades, their only requirement being plenty of rich compost.

It is important to remember that because of its high oxalic acid content, rhubarb leaves are quite toxic and must not be eaten. To prepare the stems, peel them by picking up the thin fibrous skin at a cut end with a sharp knife and peeling it all they way down. It will easily pull away in long strips. Also remove the flat part of the base of the stem where it attaches to the rhizome.

The traditional way to cook rhubarb is to gently stew the cut stems in a couple of tablespoons of water and lots of sugar. Leave the lid on the pot and stir every now and again until they are soft. Alternately, to retain some shape, you can cut them into pieces the length you require, toss them in sugar until they are generously coated, place them on greased baking paper and cook them in a moderate oven, or poach them in sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 cup of sugar into 1 cup of water. This will give you a great garnish for cream based desserts such as panna cotta or vanilla bavaroise, or with yoghurt for breakfast.

As long as I can remember my favourite dessert has always been apple and rhubarb crumble. Now I substitute pears sometimes, and even peaches, and the topping can vary with inclusion of coconut or oatmeal added to the base mixture, but it is always the crunch of the crust and the luscious sweet/tart of the rhubarb that makes it a winner. It is very simple to make, and a very rewarding winter warmer.

Crumble topping for Rhubarb and apple crumble (for 2 cups fruit)

Ingredients:
1/3 cup sugar
60g Butter (unsalted preferably)
100g Self Raising Flour (or Plain flour plus 1 teaspoon baking powder)

Method:

Simply mix the ingredients together by rubbing through your fingers, and pile loosely on top of the fruit in individual ramekins or an oven-proof dish. Bake in a hot oven until the fruit liquid begins to bubble through.


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