At last, my forced rhubarb was ready to pick this week! Now I feel the season of Spring has begun. Long before all other fruits in the garden are even formed, forced rhubarb gives us a flavour of all the sweet delights yet to come.
To me, rhubarb is associated with fond memories of my childhood. My grandparents used to grow “forests” of the thick, leafy stems in the summer – no summer holiday was complete without one of Grannie’s rhubarb crumbles.
If you fancy having a go at growing your own, now is the best time of year to buy yourself a rhubarb plant (or “crown”) and get it in the ground ready for next year.
Rhubarb grows best in an open site, ideally in the sun, but it will grow anywhere. It likes a good mulching and needs plenty of soil depth as the roots, once established, run deep. Give it a good feed once in a while and it will do well. It is very easy to grow and a single plant will provide a good yield for a small family. Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but most of us regard it as a fruit because we serve it mostly for pudding. Only the stalks are edible – the leaves are high in oxalic acid and are, subsequently, very toxic.
Hold yourself back and avoid picking any stems in the first year of planting a new crown. In the second year, pull a few stems, leaving about half of the plant untouched. Once a plant is established – after 3 years – you can pick as many stems as you want. A rhubarb plant can be “forced” at this age, ready for an early crop in spring. You can buy special rhubarb forcers – very tall, slim, terracotta pots – which go over the crown in late winter. These are very expensive; I use the tallest pot I have and this works fine – as you can see in the image above. Although the pot covering doesn’t produce really long stems, they are good enough for me. I’ve put the pot back over the crown again, ready for the next batch of stems to grow – usually the plant produces four good batches of stems before I leave it to recover and rejuvenate for next year.
I have 3 rhubarb plants in the garden now. Each year, I rotate a plant for forcing, and the other 2 are left for summer eating rhubarb, and for freezing. Here are a few tips and ideas for cooking and serving rhubarb:
- High in acidity, there are a few flavours that help temper the tartness of rhubarb: ginger, cinnamon, orange rind and juice, coconut, banana, angelica and liquorice.
- Trim the leaves from spring rhubarb and discard, then rinse the stems well and slice off the base. Cut into 3cm pieces for really quick cooking, but leave in longer pieces for gentle poaching and using to top tarts or desserts. Spring rhubarb takes barely 4-5 minutes to cook. I usually place the pieces in a frying pan and sprinkle with sugar and add 1 – 2 tablespoons of water. Once it begins to steam, cover with a lid and cook gently.
- For a tangy sweet and sour sauce, cook rhubarb in a little water with sufficient sugar to make it edible, then add a dash of raspberry or balsamic vinegar. Served cold, it goes well with roast duck, smoked mackerel or pan-fried herring.
- A favourite simple dessert of mine is to mix mashed banana, coconut (non-dairy) yogurt and vanilla extract together and layer in glasses with poached, vanilla sugar-sweetened rhubarb. It is absolute deliciousness guaranteed!
- For an easy pastry, bake-off a sheet of (gluten-free) puff pastry and allow to cool, then top with thick (dairy-free) custard and lightly poached stems of sweetened rhubarb. Always a winning combination…..rhubarb and custard.
I have posted a couple of other rhubarb recipes in my blog over the months, here are the links Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) and Rhubarb and custard ice lollies (gluten-free)