In many ways, rhubarb is an unlikely star of the fresh produce world. It’s mainly enjoyed as a fruit, even though it’s technically a vegetable category, the leaves are poisonous, and the plant is native to Siberia. But for fans, rhubarb season is the preposterously pink highlight of the year.
The carmine stalks – or petioles – are intensely sour but tempered with judicious quantities of sugar, their flavour becomes multi-layered and highly desirable. Fresh fruity notes combine with candied sweetness and mouth-puckering tartness that works beautifully with an eclectic range of flavours and ingredients.
In the UK, there are two types of rhubarb: forced and outdoor. Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark (some of the very best is grown in Yorkshire) and the bright pink tender stalks are harvested in the winter. Outdoor rhubarb comes into its own in the summer; the stalks are red/green, thicker and sometimes stringier than the forced variety. Both are delicious.
Try to find stalks that are crisp and firm, not soft and floppy, and free of blemishes and bruising. Trim the ends, making sure you discard the leaves.
One of the simplest ways to cook rhubarb is to roast it. Cut the stalks into equal lengths and weigh them, then rinse well and transfer to a baking dish. For every 400g of rhubarb, sprinkle over 75g of caster sugar and toss to combine thoroughly. This ratio of rhubarb to sugar yields cooked fruit that is still quite tart, so add more (or less!) according to your taste. Make sure the fruit is arranged in a single layer, clover tightly with foil and bake for around 15 minutes in a 200C oven. Remove the foil and if the rhubarb is tender to the point of a knife but still holding its shape, it’s done. If not, return to the oven for a few more minutes.
Alternatively combine the rhubarb and sugar in a pan with a splash of water or orange juice and simmer until tender, or cook down further until the fruit collapses to make a compote. Add strawberries to the compote mix if you like – or a couple of spoonful of strawberry jam – as the combination of sweet and tart is joyful.
Serve the roasted or stewed rhubarb with cold yoghurt, whipped cream, or warm custard. Alternatively, add pucker to your breakfast bowl by spooning the rhubarb on top of porridge, rice pudding or muesli. Or pile the cooked fruit into a baking dish and top with crumble mixture, for rhubarb crumble.
Rhubarb retains a hint of a sharp edge no matter of how much sugar you add, so it pairs best with sweet ingredients. Think ripe fruits such as apple, sweet spices like cinnamon and syrups including maple and honey. Dairy-rich and creamy ingredients are satisfying foils to rhubarb’s sourness, which is why custard makes a delicious partner, as does cinnamon scented whipped cream.
Rhubarb works outstandingly well in cakes, muffins and tarts that include warm aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise and nutmeg somewhere in the mix. Hunt out a rhubarb crumble cake recipe – look for one that uses almond meal/ground almonds in the ingredient list – which is best enjoyed with a cup of tea or coffee. Or for a simple dessert, make a rustic rhubarb galette using shop-bought shortcrust pastry. Rhubarb compote is heavenly at the bottom of a steamed sponge pudding – just swap it for the or golden syrup in the recipe (but be generous!).
Although rhubarb is mostly used in desserts and sweet dishes, chefs often deploy its distinctive tang – just as they do gooseberries and sour cherries – in savoury dishes, too. It’s a terrific counterpoint to fatty meats and oily fish. Pair roasted or stewed rhubarb (perhaps skimp on the sugar a little if you’re going savoury) with fatty cuts of meat such as beef ribs, lamb shanks or pork belly. A spoonful of tart rhubarb is a joyful pairing with grilled mackerel or salmon. Or try serving fish with a quick rhubarb pickle.
Despite its face-tightening sourness, rhubarb can be enjoyed raw. Shave or finely slice wafer thin strands, and combine with finely sliced cucumber and shower with mint. This is lovely served with a mild creamy cheese like burrata.
Rhubarb pairs beautifully with: dairy, almonds, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, fatty meats, oily fish.
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