INGREDIENT OF THE MONTH - Forced rhubarb

The flamboyant pink sticks of forced rhubarb are at their height between January and March. .

  • Forced rhubarb recipes

History

Rhubarb was used as a medicine as early as 2700BC, when it was first seen in China. The forced stuff was originally cultivated in 1815 by a Chelsea Physic gardener, who made the discovery after mistakenly leaving the roots of his plants covered in soil. The restricted light made the shoots blanch and grow extra quickly, and forced rhubarb was born. It’s now prolific in the ‘Rhubarb triangle’, an stretch of land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, which is famous for producing much of the country’s supply – the area was even awarded a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in 2010.

Growing

Forced rhubarb spends two years growing outside in the fields in order to give it energy for the next growing stage. The roots are then brought into ‘forcing’ sheds, where they’re subjected to complete darkness and warmer temperatures. This tricks the rhubarb into thinking spring has sprung, causing it to grow in earnest. The stems are harvested by candlelight, as preventing contact with the sun rules out any chance of photosynthesis. The resulting rhubarb is a much more vibrant pink colour, than its natural counterpart, with a sweeter and more delicate flavour – no wonder it’s often called ‘champagne rhubarb’.

Buying & storing

Go for crisp, plump stalks, avoiding those that look bruised. The leaves, which are yellow in forced rhubarb, should look vibrant and fresh – wilted ones are a no-no. Colour-wise, a deeper pink doesn’t necessarily mean the rhubarb will be sweeter. Look out for a rosy, pale pink hue instead, and check at the cut end for a clue as to when the stems were cut. Stay local and choose Yorkshire-grown rhubarb; this is (in our humble opinion) far superior to the imported stuff. Carefully stored, the stems will keep for around a week in the fridge or a cold place, but if you’ve got a glut be sure to blanch for a couple of seconds, dry with a tea towel then just pop in the freezer for gorgeous rhubarb whenever you fancy!

Uses

Rhubarb shouldn’t be consigned to crumbles – the stems can be eaten cooked or raw, in both savoury and sweet dishes. Try paring with creamy textures such as soft cheese – this works especially well when the rhubarb is still raw, as it’s lovely and crunchy. Although forced rhubarb isn’t quite as sharp as conventionally grown stuff it’s still a good idea to add sugar when cooking. Try roasting with brown sugar, vanilla and orange zest then serving with a dollop of natural yoghurt. Of course, custard is rhubarb’s natural sidekick – but don’t limit this pretty pink creature to that; it’s also lovely with rich meats such as duck or pork, and even stronger fish like mackerel.

WHAT'S GOOD AT THE MOMENT?

Spring is finally starting to appear, and as we end the 'hunger gap', so are some gorgeous new ingredients.

Blood orange

One of late winter's juiciest treats, blood oranges are delicious just as they are - but will also add sharpness and fragrance to both sweet and savoury dishes. Try paring with a rich, oily fish such as mackerel - they'll cut through it beautifully.

Sea kale

All hail, sea kale! Along with watercress and samphire, seakale is one of Britain’s only genuine native vegetables, and is a wonderful delicacy during March. Its fresh, subtle fragrance works well in light salads and sauces. Pick some up at your local farmer's market.


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