Luckily, I had enough curiosity to risk cooking it. What fired me was probably the colour scheme of the first forced rhubarb of the year: vivid pink stems, long and slender, topped by a froth of bromide-yellow leaf. What a sight. It is hard to believe it is not man-made, but in a way it is: forced rhubarb, as the name suggests, is coerced into early growth by human trickery.
The art of forcing rhubarb belongs to the Leeds area, where it is grown in great dark hangars. Light-deprivation gives the young shoots their psychedelic appearance. It also tempers the harshness that so often characterises outdoor rhubarb. Forcing transforms rhubarb without removing the fresh, invigorating acidity that makes it seem healthy fare, despite the amount of sugar it soaks up. These young stems (the leaves must always be discarded, as they are toxic) take little time to cook, though they exude enormous amounts of liquid. Unless you actually want juice rather than substance, never add more water or other liquid than necessary. The high acidity means you will have to be generous with the sweetening. Count on adding at least a quarter of the weight of trimmed rhubarb in sugar.
If you happen to have a sweet cicely plant in the garden, one that is already putting out a few shoots, then several sprigs in the pan will reduce acidity and hence the quantity of sugar required. However sweet you make it, do not cook it in an aluminium or unlined iron pan. Both rhubarb and pan will end up discoloured.
Sweet cicely also adds its own mild, pleasant flavour, but more widely available enhancements are orange and either powdered ginger or, better still, preserved stem ginger, finely chopped. Almonds are also a welcome addition.
In the days when I had a microwave oven that worked, I often cooked forced rhubarb in it, which was very convenient. To 8oz (220g) trimmed stalks, cut into 1in (2.5cm) lengths, add the juice of half an orange and 2-3oz (55-85g) sugar, cover tightly with clingfilm, then cook on high for 2 1/2 -3 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Rhubarb is said to come from China, but it has long been enjoyed in Persia/Iran. It is used in particular in this lamb stew, where it adds a deliciously unexpected sourness. I found 1lb (450g) enough, but if you like more acidity, use the greater quantity.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) boned shoulder or leg of lamb
2 large onions, sliced
2oz (55g) butter
1tbs sunflower or vegetable oil
1tsp ground coriander
1 small bunch fresh parsley
3tbs chopped fresh mint
1-1 1/2 lb (450-675g) forced rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 in (3.5cm) lengths
salt and pepper
Preparation: Cut the meat into 2in (5cm) cubes, trimming off excess fat. Fry the onions in half the butter and the oil until golden. Raise the heat and add half the meat. Fry briskly until browned. Scoop out with the onions, and brown the remaining meat in the same mixture. Return the first batch, with the onions, to the pan, along with the ground coriander. Add just enough water to cover. Simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, chop the parsley and mint leaves. Fry in the remaining butter, stirring constantly, for 5-10 minutes. Add them to the stew and continue simmering for a further half-hour, with the lid half-off, stirring occasionally. Shortly before serving add the rhubarb. Stir to mix and simmer for a final 2-4 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, and serve immediately with rice.
Rhubarb meringue tart
One of the best rhubarb desserts, with a thick, almondy base that soaks up some of the juice without becoming unpleasantly soggy, and a finishing swirl of meringue.
Ingredients: For the pastry:
4oz (110g) ground almonds
4oz (110g) plain flour, sifted
6oz (170g) unsalted butter
3oz (85g) light muscovado sugar
2 egg yolks
For the filling:
1lb (450g) forced rhubarb, trimmed and then cut into 1in (2.5cm) lengths
2oz (55g) raisins
1 1/2 tbs cornflour
6oz (110g) castor sugar
2 egg whites
Preparation: To make the pastry, mix ground almonds, flour and salt, and rub in the butter. Stir in the sugar, then add the egg and, if necessary, just enough water to make a soft dough. Using your hands, press into an 8in (20cm) tart tin, to form a fairly thick crust, rising up the sides. Rest for 30 minutes in the fridge. Line with foil, weigh down with baking beans and bake blind at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 10 minutes. Remove beans and foil and return to the oven to dry out for 5 minutes. Cool until tepid.
To make the filling, toss the rhubarb with the raisins, cornflour and 2oz (55g) of the sugar, then spread over the tart base. Bake for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add half the remaining sugar and whisk again until glossy and smooth. Fold in the last of the sugar. Pile up on top of the rhubarb, making nice swirls with a fork. Return to the oven for 10 minutes, until beginning to brown on the crests. Serve warm or cold.
Forced rhubarb jellies
A spring tonic, in the best of senses. These jellies slip down like a dream - cool, fresh and scented.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) trimmed weight forced rhubarb
4 green cardamom pods
juice of 2 oranges
5oz (140g) castor sugar
1 sachet powdered gelatine
1/4 pint (150ml) single cream (optional)
Preparation: Cut the rhubarb into 1in (2.5cm) lengths. Split open the cardamom pods, extract the black seeds and crush them finely. Place rhubarb and cardamom in a pan with the orange juice and sugar. Cook over a low heat until the juices begin to run, then raise heat a little and simmer for 5 minutes or until the rhubarb is collapsing. Tip the contents of the pan into a jelly bag or a non-metallic sieve lined with muslin set over a bowl, and let it drip without pressing down on the debris. Leave for 1 hour.
Measure the liquid - you should have about 1 pint (570ml). Then taste it. It should be sweet enough but retain a mild tartness. If you think it needs more sugar, warm gently with a little extra until you get the right balance.
Put 3tbs hot water into a small pan, and sprinkle the gelatine evenly over. Leave for 3 minutes to soften, then stir until dissolved. If there are a few blobs that refuse to disappear, warm gently, stirring, without boiling, until they dissolve. Stir a tablespoon of the rhubarb juice into the gelatine, then another and then a third. Finally pour it all into the remaining rhubarb juice and stir until nicely mixed. Again, if there are blobs of gelatine, warm gently, stirring until they have gone. Pour the jelly into 6 glasses and chill until set. Add cream just before serving.
Rhubarb and honey compote
Probably the simplest way to cook rhubarb (other than in the microwave) without ending up with a mush. Baked in the oven, sweetened with honey and sugar (or all sugar if you prefer), scented mildly with orange, it just needs an occasional glance to ensure it is not overcooking.
Ingredients: 2lb (900g) rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1in (2.5 cm) lengths
3oz (85g) castor sugar
4 strips orange zest
juice of 1 orange
Preparation: Place the rhubarb in a shallow, ovenproof dish. Drizzle the honey over it, then sprinkle with sugar. Add the orange zest and juice. Cover with foil. Bake at 170C/325F/gas 3 for 30 minutes, stirring now and then, until rhubarb is tender, but not disintegrating. Serve hot, warm or cold, with cream or yoghurt.