Forcing the issue
PUBLISHED: 12:25 14 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:25 14 April 2015
Rhubarb, rhubarb . . . Linda Duffin's a fool for the juicy red stems
It’s hard to believe nowadays, when it’s such a common garden crop, but rhubarb was once so valuable it cost more than exotic spices such as saffron and cinnamon and even drugs like opium.
Originally a native of Siberia, it was the root, rather than the stems, of Chinese rhubarb that interested early British apothecaries, who used it to treat a variety of internal problems. My mother always said rhubarb “kept you regular”, perhaps not the most glowing recommendation.
I remember as a child being given a saucer of sugar and some stems of raw rhubarb to dip in it, rather like a grow-your-own sherbet dab, a definite improvement on the fig syrup she sometimes spooned into us.
From the 18th century, rhubarb began to be widely grown in Britain and to figure as a kitchen ingredient rather than just in the stillroom. The most famous growing area is Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle, where early rhubarb is grown in forcing sheds. But it’s very easy to grow in the garden, where a few crowns plonked in a corner will reward you with an annual crop of tasty red stems.
Rhubarb is good in savoury dishes as well as puddings. Try it alongside grilled mackerel instead of gooseberries or with roast pork in place of apple sauce.
But of course the classic British rhubarb recipe is rhubarb crumble with custard, and very good it is too. Sometimes, though, you want something a bit lighter to finish a meal. This takes the same flavours to make a creamy, tangy layered fool with an easy crumble topping.
How much sugar you add to the rhubarb depends on personal taste, but also on how sweet or sour your rhubarb is. Forced rhubarb is often sweeter than the stems you pick from the garden. If in doubt, add a smaller amount of sugar to start with.
Rhubarb and custard fool with ginger crumble (serves 4)
500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced
Approx 160-180g caster sugar (or to taste)
2 leaves of gelatin or vegetarian equivalent
300ml fresh ready-made custard
300ml double or whipping cream
6 gingernut biscuits
3 tbsps chopped toasted hazelnuts
Break up the gelatin, place in a bowl and leave it to dissolve in a couple of tablespoons of cold water.
Put the chopped rhubarb and sugar in a pan with a scant tablespoon of water, stir well until the sugar is dissolving into the juice released by the rhubarb, then put on a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes until the rhubarb is soft. Stir well to turn it into a rough puree.
Squeeze the excess water from the gelatin and add it to the rhubarb, stirring well. Leave to cool completely.
Whip the cream to stiffish peaks and fold in the custard. Ripple through a couple of tablespoons of the rhubarb puree.
Put the gingernuts in a sealable plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin until they resemble large breadcrumbs. Pour into a bowl and stir through the chopped hazelnuts.
Now layer the rhubarb puree and custard in wine or sundae glasses. Chill until just before you want to eat, then sprinkle the crumble mixture over the top.
Linda Duffin is a Suffolk-based food writer who likes to cook and eat seasonally and locally. She blogs as her alter ego Mrs Portly at http://mrsportlyskitchen.wordpress.com.