Few fruits are in season year-round. There’s the reliable banana, of course, but it’s not grown commercially here, so it travels many kilometres before reaching our tables. Rhubarb, on the other hand, can be easily grown throughout the country all year round.
Rhubarb first gained attention as a medicinal plant (Rheum palmatum) as far back as 2700BC, according to food writer Nigel Slater, in his book Tender: Volume II: A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden.
In Victorian times, British apothecaries decided to grow their own, rather than pay the escalating prices demanded by their regular Chinese suppliers. However, the plants imported from Siberia were Rheum rhaponticum, which had no medicinal use, although they proved delightfully edible. A Victorian market gardener persuaded shoppers at the Borough Market to try baking the stalks in a pie, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m not sure why there’s resistance to rhubarb. Maybe it’s because of its origins as a “good for you” food. Versatile rhubarb is useful in many recipes, especially when the stalks are young, tender and pink. It can even be eaten raw. Another of my favourite food writers, Jane Grigson, wrote in her Fruit Book: “I have one good memory of sitting with my sister on a doorstep, each with a stick of rhubarb, and a saucer of sugar between us. We dipped and chewed, dipped and chewed in the warm sun, with clucking hens stepping around us.”
Rhubarb is sweet when young, developing more acidity as the stalks thicken and age. Look for rhubarb with the large leaves still attached, indicating it is fresh. Discard the leaves, and pull off any of the crisp brown bits at the bottom of the stalk where it has been snapped from its central crown.
If you have a surfeit of rhubarb stalks, cut them into small pieces and store in resealable bags in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer. Rhubarb is delicious when gently stewed with a little sugar or honey. Other flavours that combine beautifully with rhubarb are vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and almonds.
In our household, rhubarb and apple are stewed freshly each morning and eaten with greek yoghurt and honey for a great start to the day.
Rhubarb makes a lovely dessert and it’s also good in baking, as the flavour adds subtle acidity to cakes, pies and muffins. These mini muffins make a sweet tea-time or mid-morning treat.
MINI RHUBARB AND CINNAMON MUFFINS
- 200g high-grade flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 175g brown sugar
- 200ml milk
- 1 egg
- 120g melted butter
- 1 cup finely sliced rhubarb (1 large stem)
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease 2 trays of mini muffin tins with extra butter. Sift the flour, baking powder and cinnamon into a large bowl. Stir in the sugar. Mix the milk and egg together. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, then add the milk mixture and melted butter. Fold in the rhubarb. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins so they are not quite full. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool the muffins on a rack. To serve, split in half and spread with a little butter.
I SERVED THE following trio of rhubarb desserts together on one plate.
- 3-4 stems rhubarb, washed and trimmed
- 3 tbsp caster sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tbsp rosewater (optional)
- 300ml cream
Slice the rhubarb and place in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook gently for 10 minutes. It will become purée-like. Cool, then add the rosewater. Whip the cream, and fold the rhubarb through it. Chill.
Serves 6 as part of the dessert.
THIS COMPOTE IS delicious served over vanilla icecream.
RHUBARB COMPOTE WITH POMEGRANATE SYRUP AND GINGER
- 4 stems of rhubarb, washed and trimmed
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 3 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp pomegranate syrup
- 3 or 4 pieces crystallised ginger, finely sliced
Slice the rhubarb neatly and place in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook gently for 5 minutes until soft. As it cools, stir through the syrup and ginger. Refrigerate until needed.
Serves 6 as part of the dessert.
CARAMELISED RHUBARB, APPLE AND WALNUT TART
- 1 large sheet pre-rolled puff pastry (Paneton)
- 2 apples, peeled and cored
- 2 stems rhubarb
- 100g cream cheese
- zest of 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 4 tbsp redcurrant jelly for glazing
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Ease the puff pastry into a rectangular 12cm x 30cm tin or a 22cm round loose-bottomed tart tin. Quarter the apples and cut each piece into 4-5 slices. Slice the rhubarb neatly. Spread the cream cheese over the pastry and sprinkle with the lemon zest. Arrange the apple and rhubarb slices in neat rows and sprinkle with the sugar.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the fruit is soft and slightly caramelised and the pastry golden and puffed. Melt the jelly, then use a pastry brush to paint a glaze over the fruit as it cools. Serve a thin slice of tart with a little of the rhubarb fool and the compote.
A Plea to Cafe Owners
Stopping in at a cafe has become almost a daily occurrence for many of us, so I’d like to pose a question for the country’s cafe owners. (It’s my mini rhubarb muffin recipe that got me thinking about this.)
Why does all the food in cafe cabinets have to be so big? If the cafe is in the middle of an industrial area or the centre of a workplace, by all means provide hearty sandwiches, muffins, wraps and cakes that satisfy the hunger and healthy appetites of manual workers. But it’s hard for the rest of us to find delicate small bites to go with a cup of coffee or even for a light, healthy lunch.
It’s daunting to walk into a cafe and see rows of chunky sandwiches with thick layers of filling; humungous pies; large slabs of pastry-encased vegetables, meat and cheese; and giant slices of cake that could happily feed four old ladies.
Why not make mini muffins? Dainty club sandwiches? Little asparagus rolls? Delicate cakes? And perhaps – or am I asking too much – some healthy snacks that don’t rely on a heavy carbohydrate hit? Lots of us just want a little treat with our coffee or tea. Please.