Ask Peter: Rhubarb
What do you add when cooking rhubarb to stop that furry teeth feeling—and how do you cook your rhubarb? It tends to cook to a mush when I microwave or cook it in a pot on the stove.
Thanks, Linda Davis.
As I type this I’m sitting at Al Brown’s Depot eating granola with rhubarb and yoghurt for breakfast. During my youth, rhubarb was eaten only for dessert, often in a crumble or stewed with sugar and water and served with custard and vanilla ice cream. Growing next to the lemon tree we had a great big rhubarb plant (a perennial) that fed us for years. My step-mum Rose would also use the leaves to descale the kettle. I am uncertain of the exact science behind this but the oxalic acid present in the leaves (which is poisonous if enough is ingested), would somehow break down the alkaline lime.
I met a Scandinavian chef years later who told me that when he was young his mum would give him tender young rhubarb stalks and a glass of sugar to snack on — which I found interesting as I’d assumed it always had to be cooked. It is hugely sour, and sugar is a must, but it was good to know it can be eaten raw like celery, although I’m not keen on it raw at all.
Over the years I’ve retained my love of this vegetable we think of it as a fruit - unlike the tomato, which is a fruit that we think of as a vegetable. I’ve only ever known it to be fuzzy on the teeth when it is either too old and firm (very large stalks), when it hasn’t had enough sugar added, or when it’s not quite cooked enough (which is why young Scandis are fed very thin stalks only).
Frozen rhubarb often (but not always) seems to have been harvested earlier than it should just as peaches often are for export as they’re more robust, but less flavoursome.
Cooking rhubarb in the oven
Apart from the well-known stewed rhubarb, you can also cook it in the oven. If you have tender pink stalks then you can cut them into 10cm lengths and lay in a non-reactive roasting dish. For every 500g of rhubarb, sprinkle on around 200g caster sugar (refined sugar will not alter the colour of the rhubarb) and add any spices you like - I’d suggest some thinly sliced peeled ginger, half a vanilla bean, a few cloves or crushed cardamom or cinnamon. Pour on just enough warm water to come a quarter of the way up the rhubarb and bake at 160C until you can almost squash a stalk. Baste the rhubarb as it cooks and turn it over after 10 minutes. Leave it to cool in the dish and once cold it’ll be easy to handle without turning to mush. You can also cut larger fatter stalks into 1cm lengths and cook it the same way - as they get older, just like celery, the fibres become more obvious so cutting into lengths makes it easier to eat.
Rhubarb chutney recipe
Rhubarb’s also great used in chutneys as the sour taste adds another dimension. Saute 2kg peeled and sliced onions with 10 cloves chopped garlic and ½ cup chopped ginger until caramelised. Add 2kg rhubarb cut into 1cm lengths, 2 kg sugar, 300ml vinegar and any spices you like — chilli is good here. Bring to the boil, then cook to a chutney consistency and season right at the end before bottling. Serve with cold meats and cheeses.
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