By Louise Oliver
The sun is shining, we are sowing seeds in anticipation of a changing season. Hidden away in the dark, one of our most unusually coloured, textured and flavoured crop is growing. The slender, vibrant, pink stems of forced rhubarb are here and with them my first, tasty, oaty crumble of the year.
Despite my close and long standing relationship with the fruit (like many, my first memory of rhubarb is carrying huge stems around with a large bag of sugar for dipping), I was surprised to learn that this bright young thing is actually a vegetable – we eat the roots of this perennial plant. Luckily for my tastebuds (and teeth) my rapport with this veg has matured and developed savoury as well as sweet notes!
Forced rhubarb traditionally comes from Yorkshire, where it is grown in the dark then harvested by candlelight to prevent photosynthesis. The stems search out the light and the indoor warmth encourages it to grow fast: locals say you can actually hear stalks growing. This method results in the rhubarb’s vivacious colour, which remains after cooking. But fear not, Fife has some forced rhubarb for you too – it too is pink, just in shades a little less shocking.
Light-grown rhubarb, Siberian in origin, have found their spiritual home in our wet, cold climate, and will be ready after its pinker siblings have been enjoyed. To me, garden-grown rhubarb feels just like a native. Whilst its girth is a little wider and its red a little deeper, a few more sprinkles of sugar and heat mean that the zing of homegrown rhubarb can be enjoyed throughout the spring and into summer. Remember that it is best to pick it before the stems are green, as those have a tendency to be so sour they draw your cheeks together!
The acidic nature means this pink’s perfect partner is sugar so, let’s be honest, health is not the predominant reason for a rhubarb feast. Having said that, rhubarb has been used in Chinese medicine as a laxative and does contain vitamins C and K, alongside soluble fibre, which slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.
Not only is rhubarb a refreshing feast for the eyes, it delivers a powerful, aromatic punch to the tastebuds, transporting us to summer days. Once you have the sweet to sour ratio balanced, rhubarb stands out alongside rosewater, vanilla, honey, ginger or the citrus kick of orange zest. It needs little more than being chopped up, put into a saucepan alongside one of these flavours, cooked gently until tender and you have yourself a delicious compote. This can then be kept in the fridge for a week or so, ready to brighten up your bowl of porridge or yogurt alongside your tastebuds too.
Rhubarb provides colour, texture and a smile to your plate. Add these gorgeous pink hues to crumbles, pies, muffins and tarts. This rhubarb and custard cake is a delicious alternative way of serving this perfect partnership. The juicy flesh requires very little if any liquid to be added so, to prevent any soggy bottoms in cakes or tarts, delicately drain the juice before baking. The juice can be added to elderflower cordial or sparkling water for a refreshing drink.
However this vibrant veg need not only be hidden away under a blanket of pastry or crumble, let its colour and taste shine in savoury dishes too, its a perfect pairing alongside oily fish dishes. Just think of the extra flavours from ingredients such as gooseberries that work so well but are not yet upon us. The palate cleansing acidity of rhubarb provides a refreshing balance to rich meats such as pork. One small unadorned matchstick of rhubarb packs a delicate punch to the fattier notes of the ribs, and is a delight on the tastebuds in this rib and rhubarb broth. Strong herbs such as thyme and rosemary, as well as strong cheeses, can also be enjoyed with the tangy rhubarb, and is a winning combination in this bright salad of rhubarb and beets.
So whilst waiting in anticipation for the fruits of summer to be harvested, think pink; various shades, sweet and savoury, and join the rhubarb revolution. Get creative and put a zing into your meal whatever the time of day.