Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Grow It, Cook It, Eat It - Rhubarb


Apart from the crocuses showing their cheerful little heads in town parks, one of the sure signs of spring is the wonderful champagne rhubarb appearing in the shops. If you're lucky enough to have a vegetable garden, or even a spare patch in the rose bushes, here is how to grow your own.

Rhubarb is the most wonderful plant and some of the earliest records go back 5,000 years to China where it was a valuable source of medicines. By the 17th century it was growing in Italy but still for medicinal use and by the late 18th century you could find it in the apothecary's garden in Banbury where it's still grown as a food crop today.

The UK is perfect for growing rhubarb as it needs temperatures around 40F or less to stimulate new growth and summer temperatures of no more than 75F for vital healthy plants. It's so easy, as once established a rhubarb crown can go on producing for up to 15 years – some of mine are still the originals that I planted in the late 60s and they produce the earliest shoots. This forgiving plant grows almost anywhere and it's perfect for the organic garden as you really can't use chemicals on it. It likes nourishing soil so give it a couple of shovels full of well rotted manure per plant and mulch with compost every autumn.

Rhubarb needs space so if you're planting more than one or two crowns you need to leave at least 3 feet between each plant and 3 feet between each row, but unless you want to feed your neighbours for half a mile each side, remember that rhubarb is very, very productive. Four crowns will give as much as you can eat, freeze, give away and turn into pies, rhubarb and ginger jam or rhubarb sauces. Don't be tempted to pick stalks during the first year but make sure that you do take away any flowering stems the minute you see them.

In spite of the fact that rhubarb leaves are very poisonous because they contain oxalic acid and should never be eaten, they make a fabulous addition to your compost heap. There are lots of them, they rot well and they help regulate the acidity of your compost pile.

You can force rhubarb during the winter by potting up older roots, leaving them outside in the frost and then keeping them in the dark in a warm cellar or in the shed covered with peat. You can buy wonderful copies of Victorian forcing pots like large pottery bell jars. Choose one or two roots, cover with the pots after a couple of good frosts and put a mulch of compost all around the base to keep out the cold. Fill the pots with straw or hay and you'll get delicate pale pink shoots in the very early spring.

Rhubarb is very low in calories, is totally fat free, contains no salt and is a reasonable source of fibre, calcium, folic acid and potassium, a good source of vitamin C and is a very gentle laxative. Be adventurous with your cooking and take heed of Gordon Ramsay who famously said about rhubarb “When I was young, rhubarb was the sort of thing dads grew in their allotments and then mums ruined in a crumble - there must be whole generations who have been put off it for life.” Rhubarb is the most favourite pie plant in the entire world. Ignore the arguments about whether it's a fruit or vegetable, just grow it, cook it and enjoy it.

You can buy rhubarb crowns in garden centres. My favourite varieties are Victoria and the early variety Champagne, both available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue 0845 130 1304 or www.organiccatalogue.com www.organiccatalogue.com

Serves three to four

It may sound odd to include cheese and vinegar in an ice cream recipe, but stranger things have happened. Ask Heston Blumenthal! He serves bacon and egg ice cream at the famous Fat Duck in Berkshire, recently voted the best restaurant in the world. This is a rich, dense and robust dessert, a far cry from most of the runny commercial varieties.

50g/2oz young rhubarb, sliced lengthwise, then cut into 1cm/half inch chunks
6 tablespoons orange blossom water
110g/4oz mascarpone cheese
25g/1oz golden caster sugar
75ml/3fl oz double cream
Half a teaspoon white wine vinegar
2 squares of good quality chocolate (like Green and Black's) grated

Poach the rhubarb gently in the orange blossom water until mushy – about 10 minutes. Leave to cool. Beat together the mascarpone, sugar, cream and vinegar and fold in the fruit with its liquid. If you have an ice cream maker, follow the machine instructions. If not, pour the mixture into a freezer tray and put into the freezer. Allow to freeze gently for two hours. Break up the crystals with a fork or whisk and continue freezing. Remove from the freezer an hour before required. Serve scattered with the grated chocolate

Chocolate is easier to grate if it's taken straight from the fridge. The best way to do it is with a potato peeler.


Serves six

After the amazing incident of the escaped wild boars a couple of years ago, I would have liked to cook this with wild boar – as they do in many parts of Spain and France. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any, but this, bought at the fabulous Ginger Pig in London, was just as good. The tartness of the very simple rhubarb sauce complements perfectly the slight fattiness of the pork

1.3kg/3lbs loin of pork, skin left on and scored, either by you or a good butcher
2 heaped tablespoons of salt
450g/1lb young rhubarb, sliced lengthwise then cut into 1cm/half inch chunks
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons cranberry sauce

Rub the pork with the salt, place on a trivet in a roasting pan and put into the oven at the highest temperature you can get. Immediately turn the oven down to 190C/375F and continue roasting, basting occasionally, for an hour and a half – if your joint is larger or smaller, calculate the overall roasting time at 30 minutes per 450g/1lb. Leave to rest, covered with foil, for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the sauce . . .

Put the rhubarb and sugar into a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the rhubarb starts to give up its juices and the sugar is melted. Still over a gentle heat, add the cranberry sauce and stir until combined, adding a little water if the sauce seems too thick.

Cut the crackling off the pork and break into pieces. Trim off any excess fat on the meat. Slice and serve with the sauce on the side.

Good butchers do this as a matter of course. If yours doesn't, ask him (or, increasingly, her these days) to cut off the skin, remove some of the fat, then tie the skin back with string. That way you'll get wonderfully crisp crackling and less fat. Avoid the type of supermarket joint which is held together by netting as this gets inseperably melted into the crackling. Makes things difficult to carve and bits of the netting get stuck between your teeth!


Serves 4

What an international wonder! British lamb and rhubarb, Greek yoghurt and eastern spices. When I first mentioned this to Sally, my wife, she said: 'Rhubarb in a lamb casserole? You must be joking.' Or something like that! But here it is, a brilliant, warming but light hot pot, which also tastes great cold the following day. Roll on summer.

6 tablespoons rapeseed (canola) oil or ordinary olive oil
225g/8oz lamb fillet, cubed
1 onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed then finely sliced
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 level tablespoon chilli flakes
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1.2 litres/2 pints vegetable stock
3 bay leaves
a good sprig of mint leaves, finely chopped
400g/14oz young rhubarb
25g/.75 oz unsalted butter
125ml/4fl oz thick Greek (absolutely not Greek-style) yoghurt
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper
250g/9oz long grain rice

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok. Brown the lamb briefly and spoon into a casserole dish. Gently sauté the onion in the rest of the oil until soft. Add the garlic, cumin powder and turmeric and continue cooking, stirring continuously, for two minutes. Add the chilli flakes, vinegar, stock and bay leaf. Pour into the casserole dish with the lamb and simmer for one hour.

When that's nearly ready, add the finely chopped mint and cook for another 10 minutes. Cut the rhubarb into 2.5cm/1in pieces. Add to the pot and allow to cook gently for another 15-20 minutes. Remove all the solids with a large perforated ladle, bring the liquid to a boil and reduce by about a quarter. Add the butter and stir briskly. Remove from the heat, add the parsley, yoghurt and stir again. Now return all the solid ingredients to the pot and on the gentlest heat possible warm through without overheating or boiling which would make the yoghurt separate. Serve with the rice scattered with chopped parsley.


Serves six

I'm not normally a pudding person – cheese is more my bag – but this pud, which my wife makes all through the summer, even when the rhubarb from our garden is getting a bit stringy, is to die for. I have to admit, however, that it's far more delicious at this time of year when the rhubarb we've forced through the winter is still young, tender and looking like pink champagne.

1 standard panettone
About 75g/3oz unsalted butter
700g/1.5lbs young rhubarb cut into 1 cm/half inch chunks
425ml/15fl oz double cream
250ml/9fl oz milk
4 large eggs
3 tablespoons amaretto or dry sherry

Cut a 1cm/half inch slice off the bottom of the panettone, then another 1cm/half inch slice and a further 1cm/half inch slice off the top. (Keep the rest for dunking in your coffee or toasting for breakfast.) Butter the bottom slice, cut side down, the middle slice on either side and the top slice on the cut edge. Put the bottom slice, butter side down, into an oven-proof dish just big enough to take it. Scatter over half the rhubarb. Put the second slice of panettone on top, again butter side down, and cover with the rest of the rhubarb. Finish with the top of the panettone, butter side down again.

Whisk together the cream, milk, eggs and amaretto or sherry. Pour over the panettone mixture and leave in the fridge for an hour. Put about 2.5cm/1in of water into a roasting pan. Set the pudding in the water. Cover with foil and put into an oven pre-heated to 190C/375F. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes until golden on top.


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