Tuesday 29 March 2011

Forcing rhubarb

The rhubarb at the allotment thrives on neglect. I inherited the rhubarb patch from the previous plotholder so I have no idea how old it is, must be 15 years at least. I know that I should have divided it by now, but I never know where I would put the divided plants, or who might want them.

So as well as never dividing it, fertilising it, watering it or anything else, I’ve never tried forcing it either, although I notice a lot of other plotholders do this.

Last year, I hardly used any rhubarb: I quite like the stuff poached in syrup and we use up spare syrup by making rhubarb ice lollies which my son likes. But that’s about it. Forced rhubarb comes at a time when there is little else going on at the allotment so I thought I might make more use of it when it’s not competing for attention with asparagus, spinach, peas, strawberries and raspberries.

To force rhubarb, all you need to do is to exclude light from the plants around January time. An upturned flowerpot or bucket will do this nicely. I fixed two large square pots over the rhubarb – or rather over the ground where I knew the rhubarb was, as it dies down overwinter. I packed straw around the rim of the pots at soil level to ensure no light could get in and used netpegs to fix the pots to the ground. A paving slab on top of each pot covered the drainage holes and also ensured the pots wouldn’t blow away in high winds.

Since about mid-February, I’ve been sneakily checking under the pots for signs of life. Each time, I’ve been gratified to see that there have been potential shoots forming. Finally, last weekend, I found enough long slim pale stems for a portion of rhubarb, our first of the year

Poached rhubarb
500g rhubarb stems, trimmed
250ml apple juice (I have also used orange juice successfully. It’s always tempting to pour in some wine to help the syrup along, but the juice will be no good for making ice lollies with afterwards – they won’t freeze hard enough)
½ a vanilla pod or 1 teasp vanilla extract at a pinch
100g sugar

Clean the rhubarb and slice into finger-lengths. Put the apple juice, vanilla pod and sugar in a pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar, stirring. Add the rhubarb and bring to a simmer. This slim forced rhubarb seems to only take around five minutes before it’s silky-soft, and you don’t want it mushy. Lift the rhubarb pieces out of the pan and eat with crème fraiche, or scattered with (not very seasonal) blueberries, or just on its own. Keep the syrup for making ice lollies.

Rhubarb ice lollies
300ml rhubarb syrup – see above

Remove the vanilla pod (keep it for another day) and boil the liquid for another five minutes or so to reduce it slightly. Pour the liquor through a fine sieve, such as a tea strainer, into a jug, then carefully fill your ice lolly moulds. Leave to cool, then freeze. The lollies have a lovely astringent sweetness, plus the aromatic vanilla makes it taste light and creamy all at the same time too.

Later in the season, when the rhubarb stalks are as thick as a butcher’s arm and nearly as tough, I’ll use the same basic ingredients but add some darker spices instead of the vanilla: a couple of cloves and a star anise, or some cardamom pods. Brown sugar gives it a richer, more caramel flavour as well. 

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