SPRING has sprung and the first of the big seasonal ingredients is with us.
For weeks now it’s been growing in the long, quiet sheds in that magical part of Yorkshire, the so-called ‘Pink triangle’.
All over the rolling countryside around Wakefield, Leeds and Castleford, the traditional forced ‘Champagne’ rhubarb has been squeaking its way through the rich loam and is now ready to be eaten. I got my first boxful the other day and it was a joy to behold. There, nestling on sheets of indigo paper were about two dozen stalks of freshly-picked rhubarb – some pale pink, others shot through with the deepest ruby red, almost fluorescent. All of them were topped with a small mass of squeaky crumpled yellow leaves.
Rhubarb is a fantastic ingredient, thought to originate in Russia where it was mainly used as a vegetable.
It’s not a fruit at all. Of course, there are many delicious uses in the savoury realm – simply stewed and pureed it goes brilliantly with roast game birds, rich venison, pan-seared foie gras and perhaps the finest way is as a foil for grilled oily fish such as mackerel.
For a taste sensation, dredge fresh mackerel fillets in finely-ground oatmeal, fry them in butter and set them on some simply-stewed rhubarb. It is ambrosial.
But here in Britain we’ve embraced the rhubarb as one of the finest fruity ingredients to cook with in the dessert kitchen. Crumbles, pies and pastries all love the sweet, tangy pink stems. And other fruit likes to join in too, most notably the strawberry, which is absolutely delicious when mixed with some rhubarb in jams, jellies and sorbets.