One of the joys of this time of year, when the nights might finally be lengthening out again, but the greyness of winter really starts to feel as though it’s dragging its heels, is the start of the rhubarb season.
It begins, of course, with the forced rhubarb: grown in dark sheds, where you can hear those tender, pink stems creaking in an effort to find the light.
In the UK, this also means rhubarb from the ‘Yorkshire Triangle’ around Wakefield, a name that suggests a certain sinister quality to a vegetable that has poisonous leaves, but whose stems can easily be put to all manner of culinary uses.
Actually, that’s one of the things that intrigues me: rhubarb is one of those foodstuffs that has been sectioned off neatly into puddings (well, crumble) and, err, that’s pretty much it.
For some years now, I’ve made Sarah Raven’s lovely rhubarb syllabub – but what else could you do with it? Is it limited to a few puddings or is it more versatile than that?
I love rhubarb. My mother used to make the obligatory crumbles – and she’d also stew batches to keep in the fridge and serve as a topping for cereal.
My sister was never as convinced. I liked the tartness: she’d sit and over-dramatically shiver if it wasn’t sweet enough for her taste. It was the same with gooseberries.
A few years ago, in possibly my first real moment of culinary creativity, I decided that chili would go wonderfully well with rhubarb. I’ve subsequently managed to rhubarb chili jelly – although far from brilliantly, since it gets all a bit complicated by the fact that chili apparently reduces the setting effectiveness of pectin. Experimentation has produced a decent taste – but not yet the right set.
A jelly will be a super condiment, like redcurrant or crabapple jellies, to serve with – well, to serve with pretty much the same things that you’d serve those with.
The fruitiness helps to cut through the richness of the meat: we use apple sauce that way with pork and mint sauce to balance the richness of lamb.
The French use raspberries with duck breast and even that cliché of a dish, duck à l’orange, is about using the citrus fruit to cut through the sweetness of the meat.
A book of Irish cooking on my shelf includes a recipe for herring with mackerel – but it uses the fruit as a stuffing and I’m hopeless at rolling up fish with a stuffing inside it.
The grain of an idea bnmkis present, though. I surfed a little, thinking of tuna. I’m afraid that I found this highly dubious image of someone’s idea, but while it didn’t inspire me, it didn’t completely put me off either.
On Friday, that grain developed into a full-blown experiment. After work, I bought salmon steaks. There were some rather tired stalks of rhubarb already at home.
Three stalks, cut into thumb-sized pieces, went into a pan with approximately a dessertspoon of caster sugar, a very little water, a few thin slices of a red chili and some redcurrants that were sitting in the fridge beginning to feel that they’d been forgotten.
Then it was left to simmer away – very, very gently.
Once it was cooked right down, it was mashed around a bit (primarily to better release the juice of the redcurrants) and then strained.
Adjust the sugar to taste. I also added a pinch of salt and a small glug of raspberry vinegar. Reduce a bit, then whisk in small pieces of beurre manié until you have something that’s the consistency of gravy.
The technical idea was based on Rick Stein’s mushroom gravy for tuna, which I’ve been cooking for some years now, but this works very well with salmon. I’m sure it would work equally well with tuna, and probably duck.
But today, I made another small batch (no redcurrants or chili this time), to deploy somehow or other with the evening’s venison meatballs.
And then everything changed. Well, it’s the weekend, and things don’t always pan out the way you planned.
For various other reason, and after mulling over countless permutations of dishes with the aforementioned meatballs, I decided simply to concoct a pretty standard version. It was made up as I went along.
Meatballs: minced venison, complete with blood, into a bowl. A ‘cup’ of breadcrumbs – for some reason, this is the only US measurement I know that makes sense to me and which I use. Season. Mix by hand. Form into meatballs. Pop on plate, cover and chill. You really do not need to add an egg to meatballs – or burgers – to get them to hold.
When you’re ready, heat some butter in a big sauté pan. Brown the meatballs. Remove to a plate. If the butter’s remotely burnt, dump it, wipe the pan and add new butter.
Soften a diced onion and a diced carrot. Be patient – there are plenty of nice smells, so inhale and enjoy.
In the meantime, take a heaped dessertspoon of plain flour and whisk a little booze into it – just enough to make a smooth paste. Sherry would probably be an idea, but I only had Noilly Prat, so that had to do. Add a good, big squeeze of tomato purée. Whisk again.
Put the kettle on – yes, you can have a cuppa if you want, but that’s not what I was thinking about!
Pop some liquid beef stock concentrate into the flour-booze mix. Whisk again.
The onions and carrot should be soft by now. Pour a glug of your chosen/what’s-in-the-cupboard booze into the pan. Relish the smell while you deglaze: this is not some sort of sacrifice.
When some of the alcohol has boiled away (taste and decide whether that’s enough alcohol that’s evaporated or not!) and you’ve deglazed, add the flour mix and stir until it’s thick but even. Add the rhubarb mix and then as much boiling water as you need to reach a consistency you like.
Remember: you need little booze because the rhubarb mix is going to give you a big acidic fillip.
Pop the meatballs and any juices back into the pan. Add some peeled small potatoes. Taste – and adjust the seasoning if you think it needs it.
Put a lid on the pan, turn down the heat and leave for half an hour. The biggest question after this is how the potato is doing – potato always cooks more slowly in stock or sauce (George gave me that incredibly valuable piece of information some years ago – I’ve yet to see a book that mentions it).
So check your potatoes with a sharp knife. Taste again. And then decide whether it needs further cooking.
It is not, as they say, rocket science. The rhubarb might seem an odd idea, but it’s really no more ‘peculiar’ than those other fruit-meat/fish combos I mentioned earlier.
And it actually worked. It wasn’t remotely obviously that there was rhubarb in the dish, but there was pleasing tartness in the background – and indeed, that’s pretty much what wine would have added. Although I think the fruitiness just made it through, very subtly.
Why did it take me so long to understand this?
It occurs to me that perhaps some of us do need to go down an almost Heston route because we do not possess a history of knowing techniques. Perhaps, when we hit a certain age and if we haven’t learnt such things from standing next to our mother, watching, then even a small version of the Heston-like science becomes a vital way of learning?
But then again, that’s perhaps destroyed as an argument by my having picked some of these techniques up ¬– very recently – from one Raymond Blanc: hardly your backwoods Englishman!
But let’s get back to rhubarb, It's difficult to know why it became the word that actors supposedly use to each other when trying to look as though they were deep in conversation in the background of a shot or on stage.
Because whatever else you can say about rhubarb, it ain't bland.
And honestly, you really don't have to have it with custard.