Wednesday, 6 April 2016

What else you can do with rhubarb

Before we casually shipped warehouses of vegetables across oceans and refrigerated them, spring was traditionally a lean time in Western temperate climates, a time when our ancestors had been living on things like salted meat or grains for months. The first edible greenery, then, gave food a much-needed injection of vitamins and flavour -- nettles, linden leaves, hawthorn leaves, sorrel, and most importantly rhubarb.

For this reason, early rhubarb – a vegetable that “thinks it’s a fruit” -- became an important crop for people who lived in far-northerly climates like ours, especially if you could “force” it to grow early and long. “Forcing” rhubarb involves moving the rhubarb into darkened sheds where they plants shoot upwards – reaching for the light, as it were – and the stalks grow long and tender. A tiny patch of Yorkshire, UK called the “rhubarb triangle” once produced 90 per cent of the world’s forced winter rhubarb.   

Country people here frequently gave rhubarb away as gifts for visitors, and newcomers described delivering party invitations door to door and walking away with armfuls of rhubarb at each house. Many people’s knowledge of cooking rhubarb, however, extends only to one recipe -- the rhubarb crumble dessert.

Many other dishes are possible, though – savoury or spicy, by itself or as a sauce for something else. To make rhubarb you simply have to deal with its two central facts – 1.) it is very tart, and must be mixed with other flavours, and 2.) it disintegrates into mush when cooked. That still leaves a lot of possibilities, though, beyond the one dish everyone makes. For example:

Savoury rhubarb spread – take one strip of rashers (bacon), one stalk of rhubarb (about 80g) and two red onions (about 100g). Dice the rasher into small pieces and fry it for about five minutes or so until they are brown but not yet crisp.  

Dice the red onions and put them in, or run them through a mandolin and break them up into slivers. Also slice the rhubarb with the mandolin, and mix the onion-and-rhubarb slivers together. After the bacon has been cooking five minutes or so, drain most of the oil out – save it for later – and toss the onions and rhubarb in the pan and mix them about. Add pinches of salt, black pepper, mustard powder and cayenne.

In about ten minutes the onions and rhubarb should cook down into a maroon paste; tart, savoury and spicy all at once. Once that is done you can spread the paste over crackers, as I did, or on toast.

Rhubarb-and-cucumber salad – The key to this is salting the rhubarb and cucumber to take the edge off the taste. Take one stalk of rhubarb (say, 80g) and one cucumber (about 150g) and peel the cucumber. Slice both thinly with a mandolin, put them in a bowl and add about 20g of salt. Let the mix sit for an hour or two, and then wash and drain the vegetables.

For the dressing, mix 200ml or so of some home-made yogurt or plain yogurt – “Greek style” works best. Chop about 100g or so of herbs – I used a mix of mint, dill, chives, parsley and Bernard – and mix them in thoroughly. Mix them with the cucumber and rhubarb, and you have an excellent salad.

Rhubarb salsa – Take half a stalk of rhubarb – say, about 50g – and slice it through the mandolin. Dice half an onion, also about 50g -- and a yellow pepper, of about 50g. Slice one jalapeno pepper in the mandolin. Keep them all separate.

Lightly oil the bottom of a cooking pot, turn the stove on low and throw in the diced onions. Cook for one minute. Throw in the sliced rhubarb and jalapeno and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in the yellow pepper and cook for one more minute.

While that is cooking, dice three tomatoes and toss them in, and turn off the heat. Chop up about 50g of coriander finely and toss that in as well, and mix everything together well. Add a teaspoon of Siracha sauce, or some comparable hot sauce, and a dash of garlic salt and black pepper. Scoop up with nachos, crisps or toast, or eat by itself.


Anubis Bard said...

It also makes a very nice white wine! I have one bottle left from my 2014 vintage and am waiting to repeat the experiment once again.

Florence said...

I've never eaten rhubarb. I see it in the grocery store but have never tried it. The rhubarb and cucumber salad looks like a possibility. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Brian Kaller said...

Andy, I should try that -- I also should add that we soaked rhubarb in brandy for a year, and that was great too.

Florence, let me know how it goes!

Leo said...

This brings back memories of my mother's rhubarb tart. A much anticipated dessert after Sunday dinner.

I've also had rhubarb and ginger jam - very tasty!

Diane said...

Every few years I can (jar?) a few half-pints of Victoria Sauce from the Ball canning
book. It resembles a sweet chutney and goes very well with pork. I have also made
rhubarb and strawberry/rhubarb wine. The salad sounds interesting and rhubarb/ginger
jam sounds fantastic.

Vivi said...

I just had rhubarb yesterday (sadly not our own - our plants died and the garden center where I wanted to buy new ones last Monday ran out before I got there at noon...). Since baking a whole rhubarb cake from scratch is a lot of work, we usually just make it into a simple compote (just cook it with sugar until it falls apart) and serve that with warm or cold vanilla semolina. Or we put the semolina into the rhubarb compote and serve the resulting "green groats" cold with vanilla sauce or icecream. I've had rhubarb-and-strawberry yoghurt, too, though store-bought, not made from scratch. What's important is the dairy component. It helps cut down on the "fuzzy teeth" effect, and the calcium reduces the absorption of the oxalic acid in the body (the stuff can cause kidney stones and other problems, which is why you don't eat the rhubarb leaves that contain more oxalic acid than the stems), as well as making up for the calcium in your blood stream that's lost through binding to the oxalic acid once it's absorbed.

As for how traditional the growing of rhubarb is in Europe... Well, "ancestors" is maybe stretching it a bit. Rhubarb is native to China, not Europe, and while even the Romans used to import "rha barbaricum" through the silk road, it was a mysterious medical powder, not a vegetable. Since the trade with the stuff was very lucrative, the Chinese made sure to keep the origins a secret. (It wasn't until the latter half of the 19th century that a Western (Russian) natural scientist finally found out the exact origin species and where it grows.) Some seeds of various rhubarb varieties made it out of China through the ages anyway, of course, but it was only grown as an exotic ornamental until quite recently. I don't know if the Chinese traditionally use rhubarb as a vegetable, but the kitchen rhubarb used in Europe is a hybrid of some of these ornamental varieties that was developed in Britain, and it wasn't used for eating until the early 19th century.

Vivi said...

If you're looking for a perennial early spring vegetable that was actually grown in Europe in the middle ages (it was probably brought into Western / Northern Europe by the Romans and then monks), you'll want to have a look at ground elder / goutweed / bishop's weed / English masterwort (Aegopodium podagraria). Yes, it's considered an invasive weed today, but there's a reason it's mostly found in old kitchen gardens and parks: unlike other weeds, it needs very humous, moist, nitrogen-rich soil. It likes shade, which means you can grow it far away from your vegetable beds (ours mostly grows directly at the foot of the north side of a garden wall, in a place that's overgrown with non-evergreen ferns later in the year), it comes up as soon as the ground thaws without any human intervention (we don't fertilise or even water the area - leaf litter from the Virginia creeper growing on the wall and a perforated drainage pipe directing excess rainwater from a roof downspout along the wall seem to be perfectly sufficient - and that even though our natural soil beneath the thin humus accumulation is nutrient-poor, fast-draining sand), and it's rich in vitamin C (but it's not tart like sorrel; it tastes more like parsley). As far as I've heard, quite a few people were saved from scurvy during the post-war hunger winter in Central Europe by collecting ground elder.

If you try to collect it 'wild' in parks or for example among the ruins of an old monastery, be careful not to collect similar, poisonous plants (such as water hemlock) - ground elder is the only species in the family with triangular stems. The many young leaves coming up right about now are best for eating (ideally before they're even fully unfurled) - once the leaves get hand-sized and tough, and especially after the plant flowers, it can cause diarrhea. But then, so can rhubarb, in larger amounts. In my family, we use the ground elder mostly as a substitute for parsley in root vegetable stews and such, until the real parsley has grown in early summer. But if you collect a few hands full (not difficult - as I said, the stuff spreads invasively through lawns and garden beds with perennial herbs or ornamentals if you don't put in root barriers, though I find that it's not much of a problem in sunny, often worked vegetable beds) then you can cook it like spinach with fried onions or a little garlic. Or with the garlic-tasting perennial wild chives (Allium schoenoprasum), which sprout even earlier, about the same time as snowdrops (and which also tolerate shade and tend to colonise the lawn via spreading by ants, though clumps transplanted into a proper garden bed produce somewhat thicker stalks and don't get yellow from drought/heat as quickly; some of our wild chives share a bed with a large spearmint patch (for tisane), which comes up later than the chives, when they're mostly done for the year anyway. Or maybe you could plant it underneath fruit trees as a companion to help ward off fungal diseases. If you don't live in an area where wild chives occur naturally - I think it's a forest plant - many seed companies have been offering seeds for so-called "garlic chives" lately (Allium tuberosum), which look different but taste the same and also come up perennially in early spring. Though they seem to be rather less resilient / more nutrient-needy, and I haven't had much luck yet getting them to spread on their own.). Like spinach, ground elder is good with potatoes, and maybe some fried sausages, fish or scrambled eggs. Or as a green sauce to noodles with some parmesan. Or with onions and cottage cheese or egg whites as a filling for ravioli.

Brian Kaller said...

Leo, I need to try the rhubarb/ginger jam -- thanks.

Diane, I will also make rhubarb wine sometime -- I just bottled last year's elderflower wine tonight, and last week bottled last year's cowslip and meadowsweet wine. I'm clearing the carboys for this year's batches, and I plan to try parsnip again, dandelion and something else. You all have inspired me to make it rhubarb.

Vivi, this was one of the most informative comments I've ever received -- thank you! We grow garlic chives -- I just used some in my egg drop soup this morning. I wondered about ground elder at first -- I tried it, and it was edible but unpleasant -- but then I realised that what we call ground elder was not the plant you mean. The plant you mean is supposed to be found here in Ireland, but we've never seen it. I will look for it, though, and take your advice!

I take your point about "ancestors," but I'm comfortable for using it for people a century or two ago. :-)

DavidT said...

As kids, we would simply eat raw rhubarb dipped in sugar and it's one of my happier memories as a spring treat.

That said, my teeth are not good.