Kelda Skelton raves about rhubarb.
"I love it," she enthuses. "It's one of my favourites, especially because it's a winter comfort food. Most people who have a garden have it growing; it's easy to look after and it's really handy as a stewed backup to have sitting in the fridge."
Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable, despite its non-fancy, everyday status. It's regarded as a vege and not a fruit, although serious people have debated which plant group it falls into. According to Wikipedia, it was the subject of an American court case in 1947. In the end, rhubarb was decreed a vegetable, with a side-effect being a reduction on imports because tariffs were higher for veges than fruit.
Unlike most other veges, sugar is usually sprinkled on rhubarb stalks during cooking. But it's bitter in other ways - its leaves are toxic, although they make great mulch.
Kelda has incorporated rhubarb into three different dishes - chicken stuffed thighs, spicy rhubarb chutney and a rhubarb and walnut cake. In each, there is a clear orange flavour and a hint of cumin - two ingredients of which Kelda is fond. The background of the Witt hospitality technician explains the superior presentation of the three dishes.
For years she was a pastry chef in Auckland, starting in 1990 as a 19-year-old.
Her parents bought a bakery in Birkenhead, and while between jobs Kelda worked for them, serving in the bakery's store. She left to start another job but didn't like it and when she called her parents to have a quiet moan, her father said one of the apprentices had just left.
"I'd always baked from the time I was little. I was always in the kitchen but I'd never considered it as a career. I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher."
When her father offered her the apprenticeship she didn't hesitate for long. Her four-year training was followed by a fulltime job with bakery chain Eve's Pantry in Auckland. She managed the cake decorating side of the business, specialising in cakes for upmarket occasions - "all the fancy, fiddly stuff", she says. Then came a job with Spotless Catering with more regular hours to suit her growing family.
In November 2009, the family moved to New Plymouth for the lifestyle. Friends had already moved here and extended family lived here. Now the mother of two teenagers, she says she'll never go back. "There's a great bunch of people [working] here. I enjoy being in the education sector."
Kelda's job at Witt is busy and multi-faceted. Tasks range from managing the kitchens for the institute's courses to liaising with tutors and ordering food. Another key role is supplying edible goodies for Witt's on-site Garage cafe.
RHUBARB STUFFED CHICKEN THIGHS
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs
8 pieces streaky bacon
2 slices white bread
100 grams rhubarb finely chopped
1 tsp toasted cumin seeds
juice and zest of 1 orange
1 small onion
salt and pepper
Put the bread into the food processor and process to breadcrumbs.
Put into a bowl with the rhubarb, orange rind and zest, cumin, onion and salt and pepper. Stir to mix.
Lay chicken thighs out flat between two layers of plastic wrap and pound lightly with a rolling pin to flatten slightly.
Divide the stuffing between the chicken thighs and roll up.
Roll two pieces of bacon around each thigh and use toothpicks to secure if necessary.
Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frypan and put the chicken thighs into brown.
Transfer the chicken into a lined baking dish and bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius in a preheated oven.
Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes in a warm place before serving.
Cut the chicken in half and serve on a creamy mash with pan juices drizzled over and fresh greens and rhubarb chutney on the side.
SPICY RHUBARB CHUTNEY
15g toasted cumin seeds
2 Tbsp curry powder
180g brown sugar
450ml red wine vinegar
rind and juice of 2 oranges
1 cinnamon stick
salt and pepper to taste
Cut the trimmed rhubarb into short lengths and finely chop the onions.
Put both ingredients into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the vinegar, orange rind, zest and cinnamon sticks.
Lightly crush the cumin seeds and add to the pan.
Bring the contents of the pan slowly to boiling and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Add the dried fruits, curry powder and salt and pepper.
Continue simmering without a lid for one to 1 1/2 hours until the rhubarb has pulped down completely.
Taste and season as required.
Pour into sterilised jars and if you can resist, allow the chutney to mature for a month before eating. However, it is delicious as soon as it's cooked.
RHUBARB AND WALNUT CAKE
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup standard flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
250g sour cream
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) chopped rhubarb
juice and rind of 1 orange
Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
Sieve standard flour, baking powder and baking soda then stir in wholemeal flour.
Gently fold in the dry ingredients alternatively with the sour cream.
Fold in the rhubarb, walnuts and orange juice and rind.
Put into a 23-centimetre baking tin lined with baking paper.
Bake at 150C for 1 1/2 hours until a skewer inserted comes out clean.
Cake can be served warm as a dessert with cream and custard, or otherwise as a cake topped with cream cheese icing and toasted walnuts.
Taranaki Daily News