SLIM pickings! At this time of year there is little available in the way of freshly-grown produce in the region.

A few brave brassicas hold on in the freezing soils, and the odd leek remains on duty, but generally the garden is empty, waiting for the first warmth of spring, and then it’s all systems go.

Now, I’ll admit that the so-far mild winter has meant that, bizarrely, I can look out of the window at a garden full of crocuses in half-bloom, but as a rule of thumb, this time of year is a time to make use of the stored vegetables.

There’s a reason for picking pumpkins with a little bit of stalk remaining – ours are still in great condition despite their having been harvested in October. So too are the red onions – now nicely dried, and ready to use.

Those two ingredients alone, roasted together in a splash of olive oil, perhaps with a little rosemary, would make a delightful accompaniment to a pork joint or grilled steak.

One product, however, is smack bang in season, and that is one of Yorkshire’s finest exports, forced rhubarb.

Only as recently as February 2010, the growers of this divine product were finally, after years of campaigning, granted European PDO status.

This is essentially a guarantee of authenticity, quality and uniqueness, bestowed upon only a handful of natural products across the continent.

Now, our very own local pink rhubarb stems can be classed alongside some of the food world’s “greats” such as Roquefort cheese, Tuscan olive oil, Jerez sherry and Cornish pasties.

Only forced rhubarb grown within the famed ‘pink triangle’ can be classified as PDO-quality.

The triangle is only 10 square miles in size, covering Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, but was once much bigger, covering parts of Leeds, Bradford and Pontefract. There even used to be a special train service delivering the freshly-picked stems to markets in London.

Nowadays, it’s a much more artisanal affair, with a select group of farmers like Oldroyd’s providing the entire crop.

The season begins in late January, and is usually finished by the end of March. It is the unique way in which the plant is forced that produces such an exquisite flavour.

The rhubarb crowns (the base from which the stems grow) spend two years in the fields without being touched, converting all the sunlight into pure carbohydrate energy – literally fattening up – before they are lifted and moved to long, heated sheds where they are planted and kept in the dark through the winter.

The warmth sparks growth, and the carbohydrate is converted into glucose, giving us that unforgettable flavour.

The lack of light produces a much sweeter, tenderer stalk than outdoor rhubarb, and this is what chefs and cooks prize so highly.

The leaves are pale and yellow, and it’s said that you can actually hear the rhubarb ‘squeaking’ as it grows – the sound being the leaves opening out in the candlelight (any brighter light would stop growth in its tracks) and rubbing against themselves. How sweet.

So, with all this knowledge in mind, let’s actually use some of these magical stems. This week, I thought I’d try a pairing with something unusual but traditional – oily fish.

Mackerel, a magnificent meaty and juicy fish, goes incredibly well with tart fruit like rhubarb or indeed gooseberries, providing you keep the sugar low.

I thought of adding a bit of carbohydrate with a few slices of potato on a little raft of puff pastry, and the recipe was ready.

Next week, a return to all things sweet; we’ll see our wonderful local forced rhubarb take centre stage in a delightful, simple dessert that shows of its talents to devastating effect. But for now, let’s go fishing. Aprons on!

Serves 4

For the tart:

1x 350g packet ready-rolled puff pastry

500ml double cream

2 large baking potatoes

4 fresh mackerel fillets

A little chopped curly parsley

6-8 stems fresh Yorkshire rhubarb, trimmed

The juice of 1 lemon

A little golden unrefined caster sugar

A little olive oil



First, cook the rhubarb. Heat the oven to Gas 5 / 180°C. Trim the leaves and base from each stem, and cut into even batons about 6cm in length.

Lay in a non-reactive baking tray (glass or enamel dishes are ideal for this) and drizzle with the lemon juice, a splash of water and a pinch of sugar. Poach in the oven until a knife only just goes through a piece of rhubarb, then remove from the heat and cool. It will continue to cook whilst cooling in the syrup it has made.

Next, peel the potatoes, and slice into discs about ½-cm thick. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, and simmer the potato slices until just tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the cream in a pan, and bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and reduce the cream by two-thirds, stirring frequently.

When it is nice and thick, remove from the heat and season well.

Cut the puff pastry into four rectangles just a little larger than the mackerel fillets.

Score a smaller rectangle around each tart, about half a centimetre from the edge, making sure you don’t cut all the way through the pastry.

Heat the oven to Gas 7 / 220°C and bake the pastry for 10 minutes or so, until risen and only just beginning to colour.

Take from the oven and, using a knife point, carefully remove the lids and discard them.

Pop back into the oven to dry for a few minutes, and then assemble the tarts.

Spread a little of the reduced cream over the base of each tart, and arrange a few potato slices in each pastry case.

Drizzle with more of the reduced cream and season well. Add a little chopped parsley.

Bake for 5-10 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling beginning to colour.

As the tarts are baking, season the mackerel fillets and drizzle with a little olive oil, then grill or fry for a couple of minutes until just cooked through.

Pop a fillet of fish on top of each potato cream tart, and serve with a few batons of tart rhubarb.

Some bitter salad leaves would go nicely with this dish, as the fish oil, tart rhubarb juice and cream make a nice impromptu dressing.