Cooking with Rhubarb
– Lynley Ruck
I’m a fool for good old rhubarb. It is not until November that fresh summer fruit begins to appear, local apples are past their best, it is way too early for decent plums and apricots and berry fruits are yet to make an appearance….and then there is rhubarb, reliable rhubarb. It makes a fantastic choice for sweet tangy desserts and delicious pies, crumbles, shortcakes, muffins and jams. Rhubarb Sour Cream Cake (pictured) is a favourite for dessert with custard or afternoon tea with cream and Rhubarb Swirl Pavlova will wow your dinner guests.
I don’t know why, but whenever I think of rhubarb the lyrics of an old English pub song springs to my mind “We’ll drink a drink a drink, to Lily the pink the pink the pink, the saviour of the human race. She invented medicinal compound, most efficacious in every case”. I adore the rosy, pink colour of cooked rhubarb and I’m not sure but I think rhubarb stalks might even be good for you – I have read about the fibre, calcium and vitamin c content, but then the amount of sugar required to render it edible may just offset any major health benefits.
Rhubarb is actually a vegetable that is closely related to sorrel and dock, not a fruit. The leaves are very toxic and can be used as an insecticide in organic gardens. If you have space, rhubarb is a wonderful addition to the kitchen garden, and what a great trade-off – a pile of steaming cow manure and a rhubarb plant, for an endless supply of the tangy gorgeousness that is rhubarb.
The classic combination, rhubarb and custard go together like, well, rhubarb and custard! Although rhubarb needs its sugar fix, it also partners up well with oranges or apples, ginger, straw or any berries, rosewater, butter and cream, pastry, pineapple, almonds and vanilla. The sharp tangy aspect of rhubarb means it also makes a great relish, sauce or chutney.
The starting point for many a recipe is stewed rhubarb, and while this term does make it sound like there may be prunes in the near vicinity, rest assured, stewed rhubarb is the same as poached rhubarb which is in turn also very nearly rhubarb compote. The ingredients for each of these methods are the same but the roasting method works best if you want to retain the shape of the stalks.
To stew, poach or puree rhubarb: Top and tail your rhubarb and cut into 10 cm lengths and place in a saucepan. Add a generous amount of sugar (to your taste) and a few tablespoons of liquid (water or orange juice work well). Cover with a lid, to poach, cook slowly until tender, to stew cook rapidly until completely softened and mushy. For a smooth puree – you can blend the stewed rhubarb.
To roast rhubarb, slice stalks into 10 cm lengths and place in an ovenproof dish with the same amount of sugar and liquid and bake at 350 for ½ an hour or until tender. Roasting helps to retain shape and colour. Orange zest, rosewater or split vanilla beans can also be added before cooking.
Rhubarb crumble is a popular way to use cooked rhubarb, you can use your standard fruit crumble recipe or you might like to try a healthier version. Rhubarb also responds well to a general ‘chutnification’, I have included an unusual Mint Sauce Chutney recipe that goes well with crispy roasted lamb and another basic relish recipe that would make a great gift. I do believe that cumin and coriander deserve further investigation.
If you are making a trifle by all means use roasted rosewater rhubarb under the custard and on top of the sponge, put it under your cobbler or brulee or on top of your breakfast cereal, between sheets of pastry with crème anglaise, use it as a suspension medium for rose petals in jelly, but having said all that, I did find it difficult to locate savoury recipes that require rhubarb. There are a few chicken recipes – but I have to say that combination did not appeal and I wouldn’t go there, unless there were a multitude of poultry sins to hide! On the other hand the sweetened, aromatic, tangy desserts, cakes and pastries appeal a little too much…………enjoy the rhubarb season!
For great tips with growing rhubarb take a look at Garden-NZ