INGREDIENT OF THE MONTH - Forced Rhubarb
Rhubarb has a very long history as a medicine – there are records dating it back to China in 2700BC. It became a foodstuff in the early 19th century and forced rhubarb was created in 1815 by a Chelsea Physic gardener who inadvertently left the roots of his plants covered in soil, only to discover that the restriction of light caused the shoots to blanch and grow quickly in search of light. Rhubarb has become an industry in Yorkshire, which is now famous for its ‘rhubarb triangle’, an area of land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. In 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
During forcing, the roots spend two years outside in the fields giving them time to store energy for the next stage. They are then brought into 'forcing' sheds and subjected to complete darkness and heat. The rhubarb is fooled into thinking it is spring and so it begins to grow in earnest earlier than it would outside. The stems are then harvested by candlelight to prevent any contact with sunlight and to avoid the chance of photosynthesis occurring. The restriction of light also means that the stems are less fibrous, sweeter and more delicate in appearance and taste, and so are often referred to as 'champagne rhubarb'.
Buying & storing
When buying, choose crisp, plump and unbruised stalks, with fresh leaves (which on forced rhubarb will be yellow rather than green). Avoid those that are wilted or with black leaves. Have a look at the cut-end to check whether the stems were recently cut. Depth of colour is not necessarily indicative of sweetness, indeed, a pale pink colour is preferable. Check the origin of your rhubarb before you buy it, Yorkshire-grown rhubarb is far superior to Dutch. Store carefully in the fridge or in a cold place and they'll keep for a week or so. They also freeze well – simply blanch the stems for a couple of seconds, dry and place in containers in your freezer.
These lovely stems can be eaten cooked or raw, as a savoury or a sweet. When raw, they add crunch and acidity and so are wonderful paired with sweet flavours or creamy textures, such as soft cheese. When cooking, rhubarb needs plenty of sugar to temper the tartness, though forced/champagne rhubarb need less sweetening than the outdoor version that appears in the summer. It only needs light cooking and is happy being stewed or baked. It is arguably at its best when paired with its classic sidekick, custard, but is also very good with other ingredients such as ginger and orange, as well as rich meats lamb and pork.
WHAT'S GOOD AT THE MOMENT?
Spring is just around the corner, make the most of the last of the winter root veg and hearty meals
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