Grand in stature and rosy in hue, cooking with complex rhubarb is a labour of love. Its naturally sour flavour requires precise sweetening, its stringy stalks need to be stripped until smooth and its poisonous leaves are inedible. On top of this, it’s grown in two variants that are available at different times, plus rhubarb is not actually a fruit – botanically it’s a stalk vegetable. All in all, a relatively high-maintenance ingredient.
Rhubarb: The basics
There are two kinds of rhubarb grown in the UK – forced rhubarb, which is available from January to March, and maincrop rhubarb, available from March to June.
Forced rhubarb is grown under pots in the charmingly named ‘rhubarb triangle’, the area around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford. Cultivated under controlled light and soil conditions, it grows up to 5cm a day, and it’s rumoured you can ‘hear’ it growing, with tales of eerie creaking sounds as the stalks move their way up the soil.
Maincrop rhubarb is available in spring, usually from late March until June. It has a deeper colour and more tart flavour than delicate, light pink forced rhubarb, meaning the two should be treated differently during cooking.
Buying the best rhubarb
Forced rhubarb should be watermelon pink with pale green leaves, while expect prime maincrop to be redder in tone, with bright green leaves. Avoid stems that are slimy or limp and go for those that are plump and crisp. Remember that once the leaves have been removed the rhubarb will quickly go limp.
Preparing and cooking rhubarb
As tempting as it may be to throw them into a salad, remember that you should never eat rhubarb leaves. They contain nasty-sounding oxalic acid, which is poisonous when ingested. When it comes to the stalks, strip off any rough, stringy ribs from maincrop rhubarb with a small paring knife – forced rhubarb shouldn’t require any peeling. Wash the stalks, trim off the top and bottom, then slice into your preferred shape.
What works with rhubarb: Orange, vanilla, pear, coconut, almond, strawberry, lemon, ginger, rosewater.
Eight new ways with rhubarb
1. Jellied rhubarb & vanilla soup
This novel sweet ‘soup’ recipe was written specifically for sweeter forced rhubarb. Submerge thick matchsticks of rhubarb in a bath of white wine, vanilla and gelatine, leave to set and serve with an elegant quenelle of clotted cream.
2. Rhubarb curd
We all love a generous smudge of familiar lemon curd on a hot, buttered crumpet, but rhubarb can also be turned into this creamy, thick spread. You just need butter, eggs and a little cornflour to thicken. This recipe also contains a touch of fruity grenadine syrup.
3. Rhubarb & strawberry vodka
White spirits like gin, vodka and rum can be infused with all manner of fruits, spices and herbs, but we think sweetened rhubarb works nicely with neutral vodka. We really like that you can use an inexpensive spirit, plus it requires very little preparation besides straining the liquid through muslin.
4. Rhubarb & orange slump
Not content with the traditional and much-loved crumble, we decided to take a trip Stateside and created a ‘slump’. This baked dessert consists of a hot fruit filling, topped with fluffy sweet dumplings. Serve warm with cold custard or ice cream.
5. Lightly smoked salmon with orange & rhubarb salad
We treat the combination of fruit and all things ‘piscine’ with extreme caution, but as rhubarb is officially a vegetable we can let this one slide. Match pink with pink and cut through the oiliness of salmon with sharp rhubarb.
6. Rhubarb & date chutney
Lock in the flavour of rhubarb by reducing it to a spicy chutney. This version is spiced with mustard seeds, curry powder and ginger, and since it contains cranberries and dates it’s perfect for cracking open with your autumn cheeseboard once the flavours have deepened with sealed storage.
7. Rhubarb & custard cocktail
Turn a childhood boiled sweet into something altogether more grown-up with these rhubarb and custard cocktails. We’re especially fond of this dazzling tipple as it uses the super retro and extremely delicious egg-based Dutch liqueur, advocaat.
8. Pork with black pudding & roasted rhubarb
This dinner party dish showcases the porcine wonder of a pork, black pudding and bacon roll alongside sweet pink rhubarb. Add a creamy honey sauce and serve with mash as a talking point for your diners.
How do you like to serve rhubarb? We have plenty more recipes to get you inspired, but want to hear your ideas too…