A product that is plentiful now is rhubarb.
Grown year-round in temperate climates, down our way the above-ground portion of the plant completely withers during the cold winter then almost miraculously in early spring the growth reappears with spindly stalks popping their heads through the earth.
When I was growing up I recall containers being placed over the rhubarb clumps to encourage growth early in spring, ensuring we had the fine but sweet early stalks available for "crumble" as soon as possible back in our Grasmere days.
Outside of the United States rhubarb is considered a vegetable. However, just after World War II a court in New York made the decision that since rhubarb was more generally used as a fruit it could be classified as such. The reason for the court decision was fruit attracted less in tariffs than vegetables.
Prized by the early Chinese for medical purposes, rhubarb was also harvested and shipped to Europe from about 1400, attracting plenty of attention.
While the leaves of rhubarb are toxic, the roots will produce a rich, brown dye very similar to the colour of the dye produced from walnut husks. More often served as a dessert, rhubarb is also very useful made into sauce and jam/spread, while it can be fermented to produce a delicious fruit wine.
During the early ages children were treated with a tender stalk of rhubarb which had been dipped in sugar, a practice still common today in Finland, Norway and Iceland. As a kid rhubarb was simply boiled with sugar and used from there.
A few years back I was about to do the same when a staff member who recently arrived from Scotland suggested I roast the rhubarb by simply preparing the stalks in the usual way (cutting into 2cm pieces after peeling away any stringiness) and sprinkling with sugar, then roasted in a medium oven (160 degrees Celsius) until soft. This method I continue to use today and have never gone back to boiling.
Please try cooking rhubarb this way – you will not want to go back to boiling it again.
As a treat for Mother's Day I whipped up a pie, mainly as Ray (our gardening mate) and Jim had kindly dropped off some fresh rhubarb. While strawberries are often associated with rhubarb in pies, I had none on hand, but what I did have was some blueberries, so I added them and the pie went down a treat. I also added some cinnamon to the pastry which is delicate and short so can be a little difficult to handle if it is not kept cool, but well worth the effort.
Ingredients for a 20cm pie:
4 cups roasted rhubarb
1 cup blueberries
1 tsp ground cinnamon
zest and juice of 1 lemon
Method: Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and put aside until the pastry is ready.
3 cups sifted flour
3/4 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
160g butter (or margarine)
3 egg yolks lightly beaten
Method: Sift the flour, sugar and cinnamon and mix in the lemon rind.
Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or knife until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Add the lightly beaten yolks and mix with a fork until the pastry forms a ball. You may need to use your hands but handle as lightly as possible.
Now wrap the pastry in cling film and chill for one hour.
Place the pastry on a lightly floured board and roll out enough to form a circle, about 5cm larger than your pie dish. Fit this into pan, trimming the edges to hang about 1cm around the edge.
Place the filling into the pastry and roll the remaining pastry into a circle large enough to cover the top.
Place the pastry on top, folding the edge over, brush with milk, prick with a fork and sprinkle with some caster sugar.
Bake at 180 degrees Celsius until golden brown.
Graham Hawkes operates Paddington Arms at the Queens Dr/Bainfield Rd roundabout.
- The Southland Times