May is the start of the rhubarb season which also means the summer must be on its way.
In Shetland rhubarb seems to grow in every garden and you’ll also often find it around old abandoned crofthouses. Probably because it grows far better than anything else in these windswept islands, as Mary Prior writes in her wonderful Rhubarbaria, it formed an important part in the Shetland diet.
In the past I tried to grow rhubarb but unfortunately with not much success. Until the time when my neighbour dug out a piece of her rhubarb and gave it to me. Since then we’ve been enjoying this super versatile crop in abundance. And to get wonderfully crisp, vividly pink stalks we force the plants in the early spring by placing and old garden incinerator on them.
Yesterday, for a treat after a day spent by building a raised bed and tidying up the garden, we lifted the bucket and voilà, there it was – the first beautiful crop of the season. Inspired by a photo from Donna Smith’s lovely Instagram feed I decided to make a batch of rhubarb cordial.
Here’s the recipe:
1.5 kg chopped rhubarb
600g caster sugar
4 unwaxed lemons
1 vanilla pod
1. Place the rhubarb, halved vanilla pod and lemon zest in a pan with 100ml water over a low heat. To zest the lemon I use a potato peeler which makes the job really easy. And it fills your kitchen with a wonderful uplifting smell too! Cook slowly until the juices start coming out of the rhubarb, then turn the heat up a little. Continue cooking until completely soft and mushy.
2. Put a sieve in a large mixing bowl and line it with a piece of clean muslin or a tea towel. Ladle in the rhubarb and leave it to drain for several hours or overnight.
3. Measure the juice: for every litre add approximately 600g caster sugar. Pour into a pan on a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat before it boils. Add lemon juice, pour into sterilised bottles and seal.
4. Serve 1 part cordial with 4 parts sparkling water and don’t forget to add slices of lemon for an extra zing. Or even better – for a special summer treat add it to your Prosecco!
And if you have lots of rhubarb here are some more recipes to try: Rhubarb schnapps, Rhubarb, ginger & orange jam or the slightly more unusual pickled rhubarb recipe by my favourite chef and cookbook author Diana Henry.
Pulling out a first few stalks of rhubarb in early May must surely be one of the most delightful things in gardener’s year. There’s nothing more exciting than taking of a rhubarb forcer (in our case an old burning bin) and being rewarded by lush, vividly pink, super-long stalks that almost beg to be eaten raw, just dipped into sugar! Forcing rhubarb is probably not a common thing in Shetland but covering the crowns will encourage the plants to make early growth and these forced stalks make a great substitute for fruit when there is little else available from the garden. In Shetland cooking with rhubarb has a great tradition as it grows really well. In fact so well that a whole recipe book has been devoted to it. Rhubarbaria, written by the late Mary Prior – a frequent visitor to Shetland, is a brilliant and inspiring cookbook of every sort of rhubarb recipe. Rhubarb with meat or fish, vegetables, as a pudding, as a jam or in chutney are all included in this extensive resource. And since my rhubarb plant seems to have established itself quite well over the past couple of years I’m hoping I’ll have enough to keep cropping throughout the summer to be able to try a few recipes from the book. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of a lamb and rhubarb stew! Here’s a recipe for rhubarb schnapps, a delicious, refreshing and seasonably pink drink. 1. Chop the rhubarb finely to expose maximum surface area. Pulsing it a few times in a food processor makes the job much faster. Place in a glass jar add the vanilla pod (cut in half; lenght wise), cover with vodka by approximately an inch or so, seal, and allow to steep a month. Over this time, the flavour and colour will leach out of the rhubarb, leaving the alcohol pink and the rhubarb yellow-white. 2. When the rhubarb has finished steeping, strain it from the alcohol, and filter the solution through several layers of cheesecloth. 3. Measure the final amount of alcohol – this is your base number. In a saucepan, heat 1.5 times that amount of water, and 1/2 – 3/4 that amount of sugar, depending on how sweet you like things. To give an example: 4 cups rhubarb alcohol would need 6 cups of water and 2-3 cups sugar. Let the sugar syrup cool, then add it to your filtered alcohol. 4. Taste and add more sugar if desired. Let age for at least a month before enjoying. Rhubarb schnapps keeps at any temperature, but is especially delicious straight from the freezer. Try adding it to your Cava or Prosecco, just like Kir Royale.
Last week Marian Armitage, who is currently writing a Shetland cook book, came to the office to speak about her ideas for A Taste of Shetland blog since she is one of the contributors. Marian is a Shetland but funnily I met her in London last May, at A Shetland Night in London. And since then we’ve kept in touch.
One of Marian’s posts on A Taste of Shetland was about making the best of the glut of rhubarb at this time of year and making Rhubarb, Ginger and Orange Jam which sounded delicious. The great thing was that Marian brought a jar of her jam with her so I had a chance to taste it. Orange peel makes a lovely addition to the preserve and since there is still plenty rhubarb in the garden and I like the idea of ‘free’ food I decided to make my own batch.
Unfortunately I didn’t have stem ginger which the recipe calls for so I decided to use fresh ginger. I think I should have cooked the jam for longer than just 20 minutes as it turned out quite runny and hasn’t set properly but it tastes delicious and it will be perfect for using in puddings or eating with youghurt. Will keep trying though as practice makes perfect…
Makes 10 Jars
2kg rhubarb, 1cm chunks
2kg granulated sugar
inch long piece of root ginger, peeled and julienned
zest of one orange, thin strips
- vanilla powder (optional)
Tip the rhubarb pieces into a large bowl, along with the sugar, ginger and vanilla powder.
Leaving the mixture sit for 2 hours, turning with a spoon every 30 minutes.
Once most of the sugar has dissolved, tip the contents of the mixing bowl into a large sauce pan and bring to a brisk boil.
- Boil the orange peel in a small amount of water for 20 minutes, strain and add to the rhubarb mixture.
Turn the heat down and simmer for approximately 40 minutes, until the rhubarb has broken down.
Transfer the jam into sterilised jars, seal and leave to cool. Store in a cool dark place, once open in the fridge.
My rhubarb plant.
I love experimenting with rhubarb as it is very versatile. When I was going through some cook books whilst enjoying a cup of tea and some sunshine I came across an interesting pickled rhubarb recipe in one of my favourite books about food preserving called ‘Salt Sugar Smoke’ by Diana Henry. The book is absolutely stunning and really inspiring so I decided to try the recipe out.
Researching recipes at the back step and soaking up some sunrays.
Here’s the recipe (which I slighly adjusted):
4 stalks of rhubarb (preferably forced as the stalks are more tender and really pink), 600 ml white wine vinegar (I used red as that was all I had), 1,100g granulated sugar, 1 small cinnamon stick, 4 whole cloves (since I really like cloves I used 10).
1. Heat the vinegar, sugar and spices in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves.
2. Cut rhubarb into pieces and poach briefly (approximately 2 minutes but keep an eye on it so it doesn’t become too soft which can happen very quickly).
3. Spoon the rhubarb into sterilised jars and cover. Wait until the vinegar sirup cools down and pour it in the jars. Seal and store in a cool dark place.
Pickled rhubarb is apparently delicious with mackerel, pâté or pork. I’ll leave it to mature for a week or so before trying it out. Perhaps with grilled goats cheese and toasted sourdough bread… yummy!