What is it?
Although usually used in sweet dishes, rhubarb is not a fruit but classed as a vegetable. It grows easily in Ireland and is still a familiar feature in gardens all over the country. It dies down in winter and now, as it begins to re-emerge for the new season (later than usual this year, due to the prolonged cold weather over the winter), the new stalks will be at their pinkest and most tender.
To get the most of this early crop, rhubarb crowns can be forced. To do this, the crowns are protected with newspaper or straw then covered - ideally with beautiful clay pots made especially for the purpose, but anything like large upturned boxes or bins will do; the stems then shoot up much earlier than usual and are exceptionally pink and sweet.
For an even earlier crop the crowns can be dug up in the late autumn, re-planted in large pots (or simply in black plastic bags) and brought in to a shed or greenhouse, then covered to exclude light.
Where can I get it?
Although the timing of all fresh produce is hard to predict this year as spring is on average a month later than usual, forced rhubarb is usually easy to find in early spring when the bright pink stems are to be seen on the shelves of greengrocers and supermarkets, and they should also be available from stalls at farmers’ markets.
Early varieties of ‘regular’ rhubarb are usually available from February-March until late summer too.
What can I do with it?
Forced rhubarb can be cooked in any of the ways used for mature rhubarb later in the season but the pink new season stems are so pretty that it is best to choose cooking methods that show them off to advantage. The early ‘fruit’ is not as bitter as the later crop so less sugar is needed in cooking, and it has an affinity with orange juice, which will add natural sugar.
To use as a compote, cook it very gently (eg in a slow cooker) so that it doesn’t break up, with water and/or orange juice and a little ordinary sugar (the sweetness can be adjusted at the end); show it off in a glass bowl and serve with crème fraiche.
It also looks very pretty in traditional pies and crumbles, or used as a sauce - with oily fish such as mackerel, for example.
RECIPE: Rhubarb Fool with Yoghurt & Granola
This simply delicious (and healthy) seasonal recipe was created by Derry Clarke of L'Ecrivain Restaurant.
¼ cinnamon stick
1 star anise
150g peeled & diced rhubarb
200g natural yoghurt
1tsp organic honey
1. In a heavy based saucepan, make a light stock syrup with the sugar & water. Bring to the boil & infuse the cinnamon stick & star anise.
2. Add rhubarb & poach for 6-8 mins on a low heat until tender. Remove when cooked. Strain the cooking liquid and set aside.
3. Mix yoghurt with 1tbsp of the cold liquid, to sweeten.
4. Place the oats, flaked almonds & granola mix on a baking tray, drizzle with the honey & toast until golden brown
5. To serve, layer the granola, yoghurt and rhubarb in martini glasses, and then finish with a spoon of the rhubarb over the top. Decorate with a sprinkling of crunchy granola and a few pecans if you like.