Who doesn’t love rhubarb? I wasn’t a fan for many years, most of my life in fact. I had only ever been presented rhubarb as a stewed pudding ingredient. Around 2017, I discovered some new ways to think about rhubarb and I wrote a blog post about my rhubarb discoveries.
Since then I have seen rhubarb as an opportunity and I find it has become a good kitchen friend. According to Jane Grigson, rhubarb originates in Siberia, the precise origin appears to be unknown. It was certainly grown in England, for medicinal purposes, before the 18th century. Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, roots, stems and leaves rather than seeds. Just remember not to eat the leaves. They are poisonous.
Rhubarb is one of the crops that grows very successfully in our garden, and I need to be creative to keep up. I have discovered that we can eat rhubarb for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all of the courses. For morning and afternoon tea and with cocktails. I can find a rhubarb solution for any occasion.
For breakfast, I make two compotes. For the first, cut about 8 stalks of rhubarb into 6 cm pieces and lay in a small baking dish. Finely grate the zest of half an orange over the rhubarb and then squeeze the juice of the whole orange into the dish. Split a vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and put both in with the rhubarb. Drizzle over 1-2 tbsp honey or sprinkle a little brown sugar. I sometimes add strawberries. Bake at 175C for 15 to 20 minutes. This is delicious with muesli, on its own, stirred through yoghurt or whipped cream, or both.
My current favourite is rhubarb and strawberry spoon jam. Hull 700g strawberries and trim 900g rhubarb. Cut everything into similar sized pieces and put them into a large bowl. Add a kg sugar, cover and leave on the bench overnight. In the morning, prepare about 6 jam jars. Wash, rinse and dry in the oven. Put a couple of small saucers in the freezer for testing the jam.
Put the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan or large heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to the boil over a gentle heat, stirring frequently. Simmer gently for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and test for a set. Put a drop of jam into one of your chilled saucers, wait fifteen seconds and push it gently with your finger. When the surface wrinkles slightly it is ready. It will be quite a subtle wrinkling and I have made a note to myself not to overboil as I obviously did in the early days of making this. The recipe says to skim any froth, which is never very successful for me, then it gives this brilliant tip. Drop in a tsp of butter. As it melts it magically makes the froth disappear. Pour the jam into the jars and cover immediately. Don’t move the jars until the jam is set.
This jam is so popular in my house. We spoon it on cereal as a compote or on toast as a jam or stir it though creamy things as pudding.
For morning tea try rhubarb muffins. So simple a child can make them. If you can’t be bothered with the streusel topping just sprinkle on a little cinnamon sugar.
When I was in Kraków a few years ago, I had a memorable rhubarb and chicken salad which would be perfect for a summer lunch. I have tried to replicate it a few times without success but last week, I feel I got it just right. I had noted the ingredients from the menu description, chicken and rhubarb, kohlrabi, pork belly, Polish parmesan with mayonnaise. I used a vegetable peeler to create thin slivers of rhubarb and I marinaded these in a quick pickling liquid comprising ¾ cup apple cider vinegar, 1 ½ cups water, a tbsp each salt and sugar. I had a skin-on chicken breast which I first brined in a salt and water mix for half an hour. After thoroughly drying it, I pan-fried it skin side down and set aside to cool sufficiently that I could remove the skin. I then grilled the chicken breast in the oven on the fan grill setting until it was cooked through. It took about eight minutes. These days I use meat thermometer to confirm that chicken is thoroughly cooked. I quickly fried the skin in the pan on the other side to also ensure thorough cooking. I didn’t have pork belly, so I sautéed some chopped pancetta. I bought a kohlrabi but it was a bit past it, so I substituted radish. I think celeriac would also work here. I pulled the chicken breast apart and mixed with the vegetables. I topped with thin slices of Parmesan (Italian) and drizzled over a little mayonnaise thinned with lemon juice. I can no longer recall the flavour of the original, but this felt like an excellent version of the meal.
I also adapted a recipe from the NZ Herald for a rhubarb and chicken salad with orange segments. I used the method above to pickle the rhubarb. Rhubarb and orange are very good friends and this is another lovely summer lunch idea. Once I had pickled the rhubarb the first time, I just strained it and stored the liquid in a jar in the fridge for a couple of weeks. I experimented with a few pickled rhubarb salads including another one with haloumi and couscous.
For afternoon tea, I recommend a rhubarb and date cake we acquired many years ago from the Marsden School cookbook, where it was contributed by the principal. This cake is always very popular when I take it to functions and I am always asked for the recipe. Subsequently, I invariably get a panicked message from the recipient, accompanied by a photo, “I think something has gone wrong”! Rest assured it has not. It is a very odd batter which results in a divine cake every time.
On to dinner. If you’re planning drinks in the garden, enjoy a summery cocktail with a rhubarb shrub. In a small saucepan combine a cup of apple cider vinegar and a cup of sugar. Bring to the boil and add two stalks of rhubarb cut into 1 cm pieces. Simmer ten minutes, turn off and add two tbsp dried hibiscus leaves. Cover and let steep for ten minutes. Strain out and discard the solids. Let the syrup cool completely and store in an airtight container in the fridge. I always have some on hand to add to soda or cocktails. It is delicious with a gin and tonic, refreshing without being sweet.
I found a recipe for rhubarb soup in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. She had found it in Ruth Lowinsky’s Lovely Food (1931) as part of a menu for a “dinner to impress your publisher and make him offer ridiculous sums for the privilege of printing your next book”. Mrs Lowinsky had acquired it from Dr William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle (1817) and who knows where he sourced it. The original recipe was for ten and I scaled it down for two. Roughly chop 125 g rhubarb and sauté in butter with half a sliced onion, half a small carrot, diced, half a slice of chopped lean ham. Simmer gently until the rhubarb is tender. Then, add 2-3 cups of good chicken or vegetable stock and 30g fresh breadcrumbs. Simmer about fifteen minutes, skim off any fat, season with salt and pepper and a pinch of cayenne. The recipe said to pass through a sieve, so I whizzed it up with the stick blender. Serve with croutons. I was very apprehensive about this soup, however I can assure you that if you have a publisher to impress, this will do the trick and I will definitely be making it again.
Now that you have put aside all prejudice and enjoyed rhubarb soup, you are ready to put rhubarb on the centre of your table. I’ve already suggested chard and rhubarb with sausage, which is wonderful served on polenta, and a chicken tagine with rhubarb in the earlier blog.
Rhubarb is very popular in Persian cooking, known as khoresht rivas. I’m not sure about authenticity but I have made this with beans, chicken and lamb and all were delicious.
For a bean and herb version, first gently sauté 2 cups of finely chopped parsley in 2 tbsp olive oil for about five minutes then add about one cup of chopped mint and sauté for a further five minutes, taking care not to burn the mint. Set the pan aside.
In a Dutch oven, sauté a finely chopped onion in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and reduce the heat. Add ¼ tsp turmeric and cook about 30 seconds. Add the equivalent of two tins of cooked cannellini beans, season and cook gently about five minutes. Add the herb mixture with a cup of water and a pinch of saffron that has been steeped in a tbsp warm water. Keep the herb pan handy. Cover and simmer for ½ an hour. Add 2 tbsp lemon juice and simmer another fifteen minutes. Season to taste. Add more water as you go if necessary.
While the stew is cooking, slice a couple of sticks of rhubarb into 2 cm pieces and cook for 2-3 minutes in a little olive oil in the pan in which the herbs were cooked. You’re not cooking them through here but this stage will intensify their colour a little. When the stew is done add the rhubarb pieces and cook for about ten minutes until the rhubarb is tender. Don’t over stir or the rhubarb will break and turn to mush. Serve over Persian chelow rice.
My favourite khoresht this rhubarb season was definitely the Middle Eastern spiced lamb and rhubarb from Dish #50, p102.
For pudding try a rhubarb trifle. I make this one from Dish, using bought trifle sponge and omitting the fancy toppings, although I sometimes have Persian fairy floss in the pantry and it is a delightful addition. Rice pudding and poached rhubarb is wonderful and I found this fancy version in Dish #50 which has a complete section of rhubarb recipes.
I realise I am a bit late this year getting this down on paper and the rhubarb season is nearly over. We still have a little in the garden and these will be something to look forward to for next season.
2 thoughts on “Rhubarb”
Growing up rhubarb was a treat for us. We would take a dish of sugar to the garden and cut a stem of rhubarb, dip it in the sugar and eat it raw. It was totally delicious. There one strange way to eat a stem of rhubarb that I liked even better than the sugar. It is also great dipped in salt. I know it sounds strange but it is delicious.
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I have never tried either and now I’m tempted to try both. As a late comer to rhubarb I have a very open mind.