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Once more expensive than opium, rhubarb has a fascinating history


By Ruth Joseph, May 27, 2010
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Pretty in pink: spring forced rhubarb is tender and vivid in colour

Pretty in pink: spring forced rhubarb is tender and vivid in colour

Rhubarb might lack something in glamour but it is a fantastic seasonal food which is produced in two different ways. The stems of the rhubarb in the shops now have been forced in the dark, hence their wonderful vivid pink colour. Its flavour is more delicate than the thicker stems of outdoor-grown rhubarb that arrives later in the year. It is a fascinating plant, technically a vegetable and a closer relative to sorrel than to fruits. It is low in calories so can easily be included as part of a low-fat, healthy diet, but cooking it without too much sugar does present a challenge.

So what makes rhubarb so interesting? It originated in China and Tibet around 2700 BCE, at which time the roots were dried, ground and used as a natural purgative. Marco Polo introduced it to Europe in the 13th century and records reveal that in 1657 rhubarb commanded a price three times as high as opium.

A wild rhubarb plant has been discovered by researchers from the University of Haifa growing in the mountainous part of the Negev desert. The plant, called Rheum palaestinum, has adapted itself to its harsh climate by incorporating broad, waxy leaves with wide channels and grooves that work as funnels, passing drops of rainwater to the roots. It is the only plant in the world that possesses this ability and scientists are now looking to see if this plant's abilities could be copied in some way to provide better irrigation where water is scarce.

Also, researchers in Germany have extracted a part of the rhubarb root, named ER-73 1, which, they found, in can help with menopausal flushes.

When cooked properly, rhubarb is a refreshing and delicious ingredient. Modern chefs see the vegetable as a perfect accompaniment to fish recipes in sauces, with grilled mackerel or trout where its tartness cuts though the richness of the oily fish. But I still prefer rhubarb in a dessert. The secret to cooking it without masses of sugar is roasting. Bake 450g, 1lb, cut into roughly 6cm, 2 in lengths. Place in a deep oven-to-table dish and pour over the juice of a tin of strawberries - the perfect compliment - or the juice from a tin of peaches.

Bake on gas mark 6, 200°C until just tender for approximately 10-12 minutes. Eat it like that or combine with low-fat yoghurt for a creamy, rich dessert. You can make this even more delicious by saving a few cooked pieces of the fruit, then combining the yoghurt mixture with a pot of ready custard. Pour into glasses and serve topped with the saved pieces. This elegant dessert looks good enough to serve when entertaining.

Rhubarb marries well with orange and ginger. It is glorious with crumble - I tend to cook the fruit first and then top with the crumble so that the rhubarb is perfectly cooked. Or try my rhubarb sponge. This can be made in advance and is wonderfully satisfying.

Rhubarb, peach and ginger sponge

Omit the ginger if preferred. serves 4-6

Ingredients

● 100g, 3 ½ oz self raising flour
● 100g, 3 ½ oz margarine
● 100g, 3 ½ oz soft brown sugar
● 2 eggs
● Rind of 1 orange, finely grated
● 1 tablespoon no-sugar orange and ginger marmalade
● 450g, 1lb fresh rhubarb
● 1 tin peaches in their own juice, drained
● Approx 6 pieces crystallised ginger chopped finely

Method

● Bake the rhubarb with juice in a generous oven-to-table dish as suggested in the article above, adding the ginger pieces and leave to cool. You can add peaches at this stage.
● Beat margarine with sugar and orange rind adding eggs one at a time.
● Add marmalade and fold in flour – you may need to add a tiny drop of soya milk if the sponge is not a dropping consistency. Now spoon sponge mixture on top of the rhubarb/peaches and bake for approximately 1 hour on gas mark 4, 180°C.
● Enjoy with custard or parev ice-cream.

    Last updated: 3:00pm, May 27 2010