It’s rhubarb that kicks of the growing season; the first vegetable of the year although to all intent and purpose we think of it and use it as a fruit. It was a court in New York in the late 1940s that classified rhubarb as fruit. American import duties were higher for vegetables than for fruit, thus the change of classification meant there was less tax to pay on the long crimson stalks that were brought into the country.
The earliest rhubarb harvested is forced i.e. grown in the heated dark sheds. This produces the most exquisite vibrant pink stalks – sweet, smooth, silken and tender. It first appears mid to late January for around 6-8 weeks. By then the sleepy soil is beginning to waken and the earthy crowns of outdoor rhubarb are beginning to stir, showing first deeply crinkled snake like heads which unfurl to yield vivid green leaves of umbrella proportions, whilst underneath the fleshy stalks begin to shoot and grow and grow like Pinnochio’s nose.
I harvested my first rhubarb this year on the 4th March, a good 500g when trimmed top and bottom. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous to eat but can be composted. Their high oxalic acid content also makes them jolly good pan cleaners – just boil up some chopped leaves up and see your pans shine -what a great natural ‘gift’ and cleaner (much better than supermarket 2 for 1 offers). Now when gathering, there is a little rule to follow – PULL DO NOT CUT!
Slide your hand down to the base of the stem, give it a little twist then gently pull the the stalk from it’s papery sheaf like guard to reveal the pink tinged white base.
Even though rhubarb contains over 90% water it’s a jolly culinary ingredient for jams, pickles and puds’ and things. Below, a favourite recipe of mine – and please, don’t be put off by the word or the thought of tapioca (frogspawn) for it’s starchy consistency makes a superb natural thickener and ‘holds’ rhubarbs’s vibrant juices and fibre together.
PINK PUDDING (Rhubarb and Tapioca) – this light refreshing mix is gorgeous served warm with creamy custard, delicious layered with Greek yoghurt when cold and is excellent to swirl through cream and custard to make the perfect proverbial ‘Rhubarb Fool”
500g rhubarb when trimmed of leaf and base tip), cut into 2.5cm pieces.
50-75g granulated sugar, or to taste
1-2 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
- Put the tapioca in a medium sized pan with 300ml water. Leave for 20 minutes or longer for the grains to soften and begin to swell.
- Place the pan over a gentle heat for 5-10 minutes stirring occasionally to prevent the tapioca from sticking.
- Add the prepared rhubarb to the pan, carefully stirring into the gluey tapioca mix.
- Cook gently for about 15 minutes until the rhubarb pieces are soft but not reduced to fibres.
- Remove from heat. Add sugar to taste, and the rosewater if using.
- Eat whilst warm or leave to cool and chill in the fridge before using.