The Joy of Winter Rhubarb

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I’ve just had my first rhubarb of the year, a sublime bowl of roast rhubarb drizzled with Jersey pouring cream – 

Every year in January and February, I crave the flavour of the first rhubarb after the ‘fruitless’ winter months…. Yes, I know that the shops are full of fruit but most apart from beautiful citrus, are under ripe, out of season fruits from the other side of the world with a fraction of the flavour they have in Summer, I certainly can’t be bothered to spend money on strawberries in February…?

I used to be frightfully ‘sniffy’ about the early forced rhubarb but this year when I found some in the brilliant Village Green Grocer in Castlemartyr, I fell on it and practically whopped with delight. 

I scooped up the pale pink petioles…. I’ve just learned that beautiful word petioles, apparently it’s the correct term for what you and I call stalks…. 

 Despite Brexit it had come all the way from the Rhubarb Triangle in Yorkshire where it is lured out of its natural Winter hibernation in long dark forcing sheds, principally around Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. 

In the pitch dark warm atmosphere the stalks grow faster than usual as the plant searches for the light it desperately needs to make chlorophyll. The sweet glucose produced in the plant, normally used to grow those large rhubarb leaves remains in the stalks resulting in a less sour flavour and a tender less fibrous texture than their semi feral cousin that is still struggling, valiantly to emerge from the cold winter soil in my garden.  

I am looking forward to that too, but it’ll be at least a month before the stalks are mature enough to harvest.  

Meanwhile, I’m loving the delicate less assertive flavour of forced rhubarb, grown in darkness and hand harvested by candlelight as they leaves unfurl in long low barn like sheds, often by families who have passed the skill from one generation to another since the early eighteen hundreds.  

Rhubarb is not the only vegetable (yes technically it is a vegetable), to benefit from early forcing, white asparagus, sea kale, chicory, and even dandelions are other examples. 

Too late for this year, but you can actually do this in your own garden, by covering a couple of rhubarb ‘stools’ with a black plastic dustbin to exclude the light when the plant starts to emerge from the ground in December. Either way if you don’t have a rhubarb plant, order a couple from your local garden centre and pop them into your garden or even your flower bed, or a half barrel…. 

Back to the kitchen again, so what to do with this beautiful rare treat?

Roast rhubarb is a revelation, super easy and super delicious. Remember this Winter rhubarb is sweeter, and I also think it cooks faster than the main crop, so you can reduce both sugar and cooking time.  

I’ve also included a winter rhubarb crumble recipe, my favourite rhubarb pie, rhubarb muffins, rhubarb and custard tart with a scattering of pistachio nuts. 

Roast rhubarb also makes a delicious filling for scones or a sponge with lots of softly whipped rosemary flavoured cream or how about a rhubarb Eton mess, with chunks or meringue, roast rhubarb and lots of rosewater cream, and then there’s rhubarb fool… Too many suggestions for one article – almost need to do another piece. Perhaps when my garden rhubarb is ready to pick… 

Meanwhile, dash out and buy some Winter rhubarb while the season lasts.  

Roast Rhubarb with Jersey Cream

Serves 6 

 Years ago. I always just stewed rhubarb but I’ve become a huge fan of the sweet and intense flavour of roast rhubarb plus there’s less chance of ending up with a pot of rhubarb sauce if you overcook it…

900g (2lb) rhubarb 

200-250g (7-8oz) sugar  

Jersey Cream to serve

Preheat the oven to 200˚C/400F/Gas Mark 6. 

Slice the rhubarb into 2 1/2cm (1 inch) pieces and arrange in a single layer in a medium size oven proof dish or sauté pan.  Scatter the sugar over the rhubarb and allow to macerate for a little while until the juice starts to run. Cover with the lid or a sheet of  parchment and roast in the pre-heated oven for about 10 min, remove the covering and continue to roast for a further 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the stalks – until the rhubarb is just tender, careful it doesn’t overcook.  

Serve alone or with thick Jersey cream……

Rhubarb and Custard Tart with Pistachios

Serves 10-12 

Pastry 

225g (8ozs) plain flour 

175g (6oz) butter 

pinch of salt 

1 dessertspoon icing sugar 

a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind 

Filling 

600g (1 1/4lb) or a little more rhubarb, cut into small pieces 

1-2 tablespoons castor sugar 

300ml (10fl ozs) cream 

2 large or 3 small eggs 

3 tablespoons caster sugar  

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Garnish

45 grams, 1.1/ 2 ozs coarsely chopped pistachio nuts

1 x 12 inch (30.5cm) tart tin or 2 x 7 inch (18cm) tart tins 

Make the shortcrust pastry in the usual way (see recipe) and leave to relax in a fridge for 1 hour. Line a tart tin (or tins), with a removable base and chill for 10 minutes. Line with paper and fill with dried beans and bake blind in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 15-20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, paint the tart with a little egg wash and return to the oven for 3 or 4 minutes.   

Arrange the cut rhubarb evenly inside the tart shell.  Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons caster sugar.  

Whisk the eggs well, with the 3 tablespoons sugar and vanilla extract, add the cream. Strain this mixture over the rhubarb and bake at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4, for 35 minutes until the custard is set and the rhubarb is fully cooked. Scatter with coarsely chopped pistachios.  Serve warm with a bowl of whipped cream. 

Cullohill Rhubarb Pie

This is a gem of a recipe – a real keeper. The pastry is made by the creaming method so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter.

Serves 8-12

Pastry

225g (8oz) soft butter

50g (2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12oz) white flour, preferably unbleached

Filling

900g (2lbs) sliced red rhubarb (about 1cm thick)

370g (7 – 12oz) granulated sugar depending on whether you are using forced or garden rhubarb

egg wash-made with one beaten egg and a dash of milk

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados/ soft dark brown sugar

tin, 18cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm (7 x 12 x 1 inch) deep

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

First make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food mixer (no need to over cream). Add the eggs one by one and beat for several minutes. Reduce speed and mix in the flour slowly. Turn out onto a piece of floured greaseproof paper, flatten into a round wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle.

To make the tart

Roll out the pastry 3mm (1/8 inch) thick approx., and use about 2/3 of it to line a suitable tin. Place the sliced rhubarb into the tart, sprinkle with sugar. Cover with a lid of pastry, seal edges, decorate with pastry leaves, egg wash and bake in the preheated oven until the apples are tender, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked cut into squares, sprinkle lightly with castor sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar.

Rhubarb Crumble

Serves 6-8

Crumbles are everyone’s favourite comfort food, vary the fruit according to the season.

1 1/2 lbs (700g) Rhubarb

4ozs (110g) granulated sugar

1-2 tablespoons water

Crumble

4 ozs (110g) white flour, preferably unbleached

2 ozs (50g) cold butter

2 ozs (50g) castor sugar

1 oz (25g) chopped almonds or hazelnuts (optional)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

2 pint (1.1L) capacity pie dish

Slice the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces, place into a pie dish and sprinkle with the sugar.

Rub the butter into the flour just until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs, add the sugar and cinnamon and chopped nuts if using. Sprinkle this mixture over the rhubarb in the pie dish. Bake in a preheated moderate oven 180°C/350°F/regulo 4, for 30-45 minutes or until the topping is cooked and golden. Serve with whipped cream and soft brown sugar. 

Rhubarb Polenta Muffins 

Makes 20 – 22 muffins 

Half Roasted rhubarb… 40  -44 pieces in 2 in lengths.. see recipe 

250g (9oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature 

440g (15 3/4oz) almond paste or marzipan broken into pieces

125g (4 1/2oz) caster sugar 

zest of 1 orange 

3 eggs 

1 teaspoons baking powder 

1/2 teaspoon salt 

225g (8oz) polenta flour 

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5 

Double line a 12 cup muffin tray with paper cases. (Use two cases per muffin because the fruit makes these particularly juicy.) 

In an electric mixer, cream the butter, almond paste, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and mix well. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together the baking powder, salt and polenta flour. Add this to the butter mixture and mix well. Scoop into the paper cases filling 2/3 full and gently press the pieces of fruit on top of the muffins. 

Bake the muffins for about 30 minutes, until an inserted skewer comes out clean and tops of the muffins spring back to the touch. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before removing from tray. These keep well for up to 4 days in an airtight container. 

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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