It’s just the time of year for rhubarb. Allotments, gardens, farm shops and organic box schemes are all proudly glowing red and green with strong, proud stalks of this vegetable we treat as a fruit. Yes, rather like the tomato (a fruit we confusingly call a vegetable) rhubarb is the opposite. It is of course a vegetable – pretty obvious if you think about the long root we eat and the leaves we discard – sensibly it turns out as they are toxic.
In fact the whole plant is relatively high in oxalic acid, leading some to shun it, including my mother who says it aggravates her arthritic toe! There is some truth in this claim but I write relativelyfor good reason; few foodstuffs have enough oxalic acid in them to do us real harm – the only downside is that the compound can bind with minerals such as calcium and magnesium leaving us deprived to some degree of essential nutrients. Not enough to forgo this seasonal delicacy however.
Rhubarb is something we British take national pride in. Despite the childhood trauma of the off-putting slimy pond-sludge substance served as part of thousands of school dinners (and the reason so many refuse point blank to eat the stuff) patriots still get excited by rhubarb, both growing it and eating it.
Which brings me to the early, forced versus late rhubarb debate (yes, some people do get heated over this). I am fickle on this point. I love the robust taste of the current crop but I confess I do find some of the large stalks you buy or harvest this time of the year can be a little mealy if not treated properly – and over-cooking tends to end badly with a rather greenish-pink slime.
It’s more a texture thing for me – I prefer the taste of the late stuff, but the crisper texture, less tendency to turn to gloop, and pretty pink colour of the February forced rhubarb has me cheering every year (it’s sometimes so juicily tart you can eat it raw, just dipped in the sugar bowl in passing). Mainly people love forced rhubarb because it is the first local ‘fruit’ we have seen for months and we’re desperate!
Anyway, by now, rhubarb is abundant and fans of seasonal, local food will find it hard to avoid. It is very useful in the kitchen working well in both main courses and puddings. The combination of roast rhubarb and an oily fish like mackerel (rather like that other peculiarly English combination, gooseberries and mackerel) is delicious and I have seen it paired with black pudding and scallops too.
More often it is used as a pudding – in crumbles, cakes and pies or in jams (lovely jam rhubarb makes). Most often I make a simple roast rhubarb compote. I prefer to do it in the oven so that the rhubarb retains its shape and bite and I usually do it with orange and honey (see recipe below). If I have no orange, I have used verjuice and vanilla pods, scraped out, in the past, which is particularly delicious with thick jersey cream.
Roast Rhubarb Compote
750g rhubarb (forced or otherwise)
zest and juice of half a large orange
1-2 tablespoons runny honey (a light delicate variety like acacia works best).
Preheat the oven to 180°c.
Chop the rhubarb into inch-long chunks and wash well.
Toss the rhubarb in a suitable dish with the orange zest; pour on the juice and honey.
Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is collapsing and soft but retains its shape.
Check it is sweet enough, though you want an element of tartness. Serve with thick jersey cream, Greek yoghurt, or my home-made creamy ricotta.