Frugal and delicious, with its strangely pink stems, rhubarb has long since caused confusion regarding its classification – fruit or vegetable?
Technically it is a vegetable, but its predominant use in sweet desserts evidently caused such confusion in the United States that a 1947 customers’ court ruling felt compelled to clear the matter up and deemed it a fruit. In the UK, people seem less concerned about classifying rhubarb and are more preoccupied with eating it – happy to simply enjoy its virtues in all its lovely quintessential British forms- crumbles, pies, turnovers and jams.
Like most things nowadays, the supermarkets ensure that rhubarb is available throughout much of the year, but it is best enjoyed only during its UK season when the home-grown varieties are fresh and plentiful. While forced British rhubarb has been around since February, field grown varieties are now very much abundant. Everyone’s first rhubarb binge of the year simply has to take the form of a warming crumble on a cold February evening- tangy, crimson rhubarb laced with brown sugar and crowned with an oaty, crumbly topping infused with fresh ginger and accompanied by homemade crème anglaise or double cream. It may be a staple of country kitchens across the land but it is most definitely one seasonal treat not to be missed. As the season draws out into the sunnier days of April and into the summer, however, one can start to hanker over a slightly lighter vocation for the humble rhubarb. Here are a few ideas…
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An old-fashioned English dessert, creamy vanilla streaked with blush pink rhubarb is a beautiful summer dish.
Method: (Serves 8) 1kg rhubarb, 300g vanilla sugar, 500ml double cream. Mix the rhubarb and vanilla sugar together in an ovenproof dish. Cover with foil and bake at 200°C but until the fruit is completely soft. Drain and pour the juice (you should have about 500ml) into a saucepan, then heat and let bubble away until reduced by about half, leave to cool. Puree the fruit until totally smooth, then cool and chill as well. Whip the cream in a large chilled bowl until thick. Carefully fold in the rhubarb puree, add some of the reduced juice until the mixture is streaked like raspberry ripple ice cream. Serve in individual glasses.
This cooking method avoids the sludgy mess that can so often result from poaching rhubarb. The roasted rhubarb keeps its shape and bright pink colour, and can be used as fruit garnishes for vanilla panna cotta, enjoyed with homemade ginger ice cream, or kept in the fridge and eaten as a delicious breakfast fruit compote with natural yoghurt.
Method: Wash, trim and chop into 5cm lengths. Place rhubarb into a baking tray, pour over golden caster sugar (approx. 85g sugar for 550g rhubarb but adjust to personal preference), sprinkle with water, cover with tin foil, and roast at 200°C for approx. 20 minutes or until soft but not mushy. Reserve the resulting sugar syrup and drizzled over rhubarb when serving.
Spirit infusions are very much in vogue: from fruit infused vodkas to the traditional but unbeatable sloe gin. These fruity tipples can easily be prepared at home, delicious on a warm evening served over ice, or mixed with lemonade or tonic.
Method: Use 200g chopped prepared rhubarb to 700ml gin, along with 150g caster sugar. Combine in a sterilised 1 litre jar, seal and store for at least 3 months before drinking, shaking it once a week.
And finally….Freeze it
When you have finally overdone all things rhubarb, god forbid, don’t waste it! This sturdy vegetable freezes exceptionally well.
Method: Trim, wash and chop into batons and place in sealed freezer bags. Then pop into your freezer ready for a cheeky pie on a gloomy winters’ night.