January Rhubarb

From Living Within, January 2013, page 6.

The festivities are pretty much over and another year has been celebrated and laid to rest. The New Year may be full of resolution and optimism, but there is no getting away from the fact that January is the bleakest month the calendar has to offer. Spring still has the significant buffer of February before we have real prospect of green shoots and renewal, the weather likely to be at its coldest and gloomiest, the days are short, and the sparkle and twinkle are done leaving our homes and gardens stripped, stark and, frankly, a bit bare.

To brighten up this slightly desolate picture and attempt to gladden hearts I am writing this month to remind you of some shots of colour and flavour particular to January; some high spots in this challenging month, and hope that I can leave you in a better place than where I have started and with a little something to look forward to on your January tables.

January marks the start of the forced rhubarb season, and it is pretty swiftly followed by the finish so make the most of it while you can. This delicate and refined rhubarb, brought forward from its more natural season, thrives in the cold and damp conditions provided by the Rhubarb Triangle of Yorkshire and is not, unlike most plant life, improved by any glint of daylight. Both grown and harvested without natural light, and in special sheds, artificially heated for the final push, it grows fast and furious in glorious shades of pink and red; no trace of green coarseness taints its beauty even in its yellow leaves.

Rhubarb is an ancient plant, long ago used for medicinal purposes in Northern Asia. We English were amongst the first to cook with it and it became one of our kitchen staples. Its popularity dimmed at a time when sugar became both scarce and rationed with a wartime population encouraged to eat home-grown and plentiful rhubarb lacking, however, easy access to the sweetness needed to ameliorate its mouth-puckeringly sour natural flavour. Rhubarb became the stuff of bad memories for a generation and forced production is significantly diminished from its pre war glory years; its stock pretty low as a foodstuff that has for many years lacked sponsorship, glamour, or a clear identity (being technically a vegetable but used more like a fruit) and with a name, unfortunately, that lends little if any cachet. But, as often happens as fashions come and go and memories become consigned to history, it has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years and come to the notice of a new generation of British chefs looking for home grown produce in preference to the more exotic. We home cooks can also expand on it as an ingredient for a traditional humble crumble or a pie (good as both these are) and I can assure you that a stick or two of pink rhubarb can rise above the homely and the comforting and bring a touch of elegance to the table.

Rhubarb requires gentle handling, low temperatures, and careful watching if it is not to turn into a mush and needs ingredients that will complement and help reveal the natural, if somewhat concealed, sweetness that underlies its more obvious bitter overtones. It can be poached in dessert wine or sweet orange juice, with sugar or honey according to your own taste - don’t be tempted to be heavy handed with the sweetness however - one of rhubarb’s main charms is that it should retain its bitter integrity. It sits well with vanilla or ginger and looks beautiful when served with the red stained segments of a blood orange, also, happily, about to come into season.

Two or three sticks, sliced into shortish lengths, put in a non-metallic oven-proof dish with enough wine or juice added to give a comfortable pool to bathe but not drown in and sprinkled with no more than about 50g of sugar, covered with foil and baked in an oven pre-heated to a moderate 150ºC-160ºC for between 15 and 30 minutes (until a sharp knife will just pierce easily to the centre of the rhubarb) will poach rhubarb perfectly. Treat with great care while lifting the rhubarb from its juices from where it can be used to garnish some whipped cream on a soft chewy meringue, the cooking juices (with any less than perfect rhubarb pieces pushed through a sieve to join them) used as a syrupy sauce to drizzle over just before serving.

Rhubarb will give dramatic effect to a tart, provided you are prepared to take a bit of time cutting the stems evenly, standing them up in regimented concentric circles or making pretty mosaic patterns, and then take care not to overcook them. It can also be used in more savoury fare as an accompanying sharpener to cut through rich fatty foods like pork, duck or an oily fish such as mackerel in place of other fruit that do a similar job, like apple, or orange.

The sweet blood oranges also coming into their short season and the sour Seville ones that will make a brief appearance in January, for those interested in making their own marmalade, will add other bursts of January zest and vitality. The Fruit World team will no doubt, as last year, be able to supply you with all of these seasonal treats and I hope that I may have tempted some of you, not already familiar, to seek them out and try something with them.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year and, with even January able to provide such sophisticated prospects, the domestic amongst them, imagine how much there is to look forward to once the days start getting perceptibly longer.

Erica x


“In a few sheds near Wakefield, you can hear the rhubarb grow”~ Ian Jack, journalist