Food & Drink: May The Forced Be With You

Remember school dinners? Well this is nothing like them. Michael Bateman celebrates the delicate, pink glory of the new season's crop of forced rhubarb

LA NOUVELLE rhubarbe est arrivee! This week saw the first tender, pink shoots of the new season's crop surface in top greengrocers and fashion- conscious stores.

Forced rhubarb is a miracle of deep midwinter, this Yorkshire "fruit" nursed by candlelight in sheltered winter sheds. Lovingly separated in its infancy, stem by stem, from its protected beds, forced rhubarb is light years from the rough, tough, giant green rhubarb of the summer allotment, which is both stringy and astringent.

Forced rhubarb comes in a range of wonderful colours, from aurora pink right through to shocking cerise, and to the sensitive cook it promises a rare and delicate treat.

We should acknowledge that rhubarb isn't to everybody's taste. In some cookbooks you'll look in vain for an entry between Red Cabbage and Rice in the index, although most writers will find at least a rhubarb fool or a rhubarb jam to celebrate.

It is a food with unhappy associations for many, especially those who were sent to boarding school, where it was served because it was "good for you". It was said to clean the blood and to "keep you regular". Jane Grigson, whose Fruit Book is a standard reference, shudders to recall the rhubarb she ate in her youth and describes it as "governess food", often eaten along with cold porridge for breakfast. But this was most likely the coarse summer stem, as the costly pink-Champagne varieties of the New Year crop would not be wasted on callow youth.

Nor is Grigson inclined to agree that rhubarb is good for you, a notion based on the properties of the powdered rhubarb root used medicinally in ancient China. Cooking the stems didn't become a fashion in northern Europe until the late 19th century, and in any case the ancient Chinese used a different variety, Rheum officinale.

Rhubarb got its English name not from the sounds made by the chorus in Julius Caesar, but from Rha, the Greek name for the River Volga, down which traders from Siberia (the so-called barbarians) brought their wares, among them this vegetable. Thus Rha barbaros, rhubarb.

But this is by no means the most astonishing fact about rhubarb. Margaret Shaida relates in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia that, according to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia, the human race was born of the rhubarb plant. No barbarian root for the Zoroastrians - they called it reevas, which means "shining light".

Anyway, it is also astonishing, is it not, that the gardeners of northern Europe, denied the sunshine of the southern climes, should have created a winter fruit from this harsh, sour stem? It seems an unlikely choice compared to the sweet orange and grapefruit, ripe plum, pear and peach, banana and pineapple. But so it was.

Some say that a bowl of cold stewed rhubarb, its tartness tempered with a sweet syrup, gives the day a much more interesting kick-start than the predictable bowl of grapefruit - not to mention its complexity of flavour and delightful colour.

It is the new season's forced rhubarb which has all this wonderful colour and delicacy to offer. Later in the season it can be so stringy that you have to take a potato peeler to it. Enjoy it now.

The cook's main problem with rhubarb has to be its high water content. One moment it's raw and uncooked, simmering away happily; within seconds it turns to rags and is ruined. It may taste OK, but that's not the point.

How to deal with this? Over the years I have reduced the amount of water I use to cook rhubarb in, down to poaching it in a bare two tablespoons of water (or even orange juice) to each pound of chopped rhubarb. Eventually, I decided it would be better to dispense with the water altogether, and started sprinkling the rhubarb pieces with sugar and baking them, covered, for about 20 minutes in a low oven, allowing the juices to make their own syrup. And it works.

Then, on a trip to Sweden, I met some members of the Swedish Culinary Olympic team who taught me how to keep rhubarb pieces intact by poaching them in a weak sugar syrup (twice as much water as sugar, ie 500ml/16fl oz water to 250g/9oz sugar). You still have to watch the cooking - two minutes is probably enough - and then carefully remove the pieces with a slotted spoon as they become tender.

You then boil down the liquid, reducing it to a thick, tart syrup, and leave it to cool before pouring it back on to the rhubarb. Eat it chilled for breakfast, with muesli perhaps, or warm as a lunchtime dessert served with custard or thick cream.

They love rhubarb in Sweden and eat it in a variety of forms - rabarbersoppa, a rhubarb soup for the summertime, is made with sieved, sweetened puree and thickened with cornflour or potato flour, served hot or cold. And the French specialise in turning the young pink stems into delicious rhubarb tarts and pies.

Rhubarb goes particularly well with orange and ginger. So when you boil down the sugar syrup, it's a good idea to add a little freshly shaved ginger and the zest of an orange to it, straining it out at the end. Even better, boil it to a very dense syrup, and then thin it with the juice of an orange.

Our greatest native rhubarb dish is surely crumble. We are also quite good at making it into a fool - rhubarb gently cooked to a puree, then sweetened with half its weight in sugar (say 250g/8oz sugar dissolved into 500g/1lb rhubarb); when cool, fold this into thick whipped cream (300ml/10fl oz), pour into glasses and chill.

We'd be mistaken to assume that rhubarb is solely a north European taste. And we shouldn't be surprised to encounter it in the cooking of Iran, given that this is, after all, the country whose ancestors believed they emerged from the rhubarb patch (we know better, our own enlightened elders having taught us that babies come from under a gooseberry bush).

Rhubarb is just one of many alternatives used to flavour the Persian housewife's traditional stew, khoresh. This is a soupy mixture of meat (beef or lamb), diced small and simmered with chopped seasonal vegetables. It is always eaten with plenty of rice to take up the liquid. I've tried it, it's very sour, and probably not to British tastes. But it was an interesting sensation.

To give a sour/sweet finish to the dish, the Persian cook adds tart fruits, such as sour yellow prunes, not-quite-ripe peaches, apples or quinces. Rhubarb khoresh is one of her favourites, the rhubarb having the additional advantage of thickening the dish. The recipe is given left, together with a rhubarb crumble from the Michelin-starred Lancashire chef Paul Heathcote.

Paul Heathcote, author of `Rhubarb and Black Pudding' (Fourth Estate, pounds 20), will be cooking at Harvey Nichols Fourth Floor Cafe in Leeds on Friday 5 February. Tickets for the three-course dinner, plus demonstration, cost pounds 25. Telephone 0113 204 8000 to book. `The Legendary Cuisine of Persia' by Margaret Shaida (Lieuse, pounds 19) is available from Books for Cooks (0171 221 1992)

RHUBARB KHORESH

Traditionally, rhubarb was used as a thickening agent in a rich khoresh of lamb and celery. But in modern Iran, parsley and mint give substance to the sauce, while the rhubarb is added minutes before serving. This parsley and mint sauce serves as the basis for a number of dishes, including celery, cardoon and aubergine stews.

Khoresh reevas is a pretty dish - the pink rhubarb affords a lovely contrast to the dark green herbs. In Iran it is often served to aid digestion.

Serves 4

500g/1lb boned leg of lamb

2 medium onions

180g/6oz fresh parsley

120g/4oz fresh mint

500g/1lb rhubarb

salt

Trim the meat of all fat, cut it into 5cm (2in) cubes, wash and leave the cubes to soak while you slice the onions and fry them in oil until golden brown.

Add the drained meat to the frying onions and brown it on all sides. Add enough water to cover the mixture. Cover with a lid and leave to simmer gently for half an hour.

Clean and wash the parsley and the mint, removing any coarse stems, shake dry and chop finely. Fry the herbs in a little oil, turning constantly for 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the herbs to the stew and continue to simmer gently for about an hour and a half, or until the meat is very tender and the stew is well blended.

Wash the rhubarb, trim and discard the leaves, and chop into 2cm (12in) lengths.

Fifteen minutes before serving the stew, add the salt and the rhubarb. Be careful not allow the rhubarb to overcook or disintegrate.

Dish the stew up into warm bowls and serve with plenty of steaming white rice.

PAUL HEATHCOTE'S RHUBARB CRUMBLE

Serves 4

500g/1lb 2oz rhubarb

20g/34oz stem ginger, finely chopped

75g/212oz sugar

For the crumble mix:

125g/412oz butter

125g/412oz brown sugar

125g/412oz ground almonds

190g/612oz plain flour

Crumb together the butter and the flour and add the sugar and almonds.

Wash and chop the rhubarb into 2cm (12in) lengths. Place in a hot pan, add the sugar and stem ginger and cook through.

Place in an oven-proof dish. Put the crumble mix on top and transfer to an oven preheated to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6. Bake for about 10 minutes.

Paul Heathcote serves this crumble with custard flavoured with elderflower cordial.

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