Batch of the day: rhubarb

Categories: Expert guidance

Jenny Chandler expounds on the benefits of batch cooking as a way of saving time and money, through cooking one ingredient in bulk and using it for myriad recipes. This time: forced rhubarb

Cooking forced rhubarb is not so much about saving money—it’s a fairly extravagant ingredient in any case—but about ensuring that you make the most of the fleetingly short season. The preparation is neither tricky nor long-winded, but it does involve firing up the oven, some precise chopping and then keeping your nose twitching for the tell-tale wafts of cooked rhubarb (if you have an Aga or you’re cooking a curry at the same time then I’m afraid that you’ll just have to keep a beady eye on the pan and check it regularly). It’s about 20 minutes or so of rhubarb commitment and then, if you cook a good dozen stems, you’ll have a week’s worth of dreamy dishes to thank me for.

We’re talking the slender, Barbie-pink stems from Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle here, available for just a few short weeks from mid-January to March. While I’m happy to throw the later, less delicate, outdoor varieties into crumbles and purées, these candy-hued beauties deserve special treatment.

Kick off by preheating the oven to about 180C and then find yourself a large flat dish or two—I tend to use ceramic, as you don’t want the acidic juices reacting with a metal tin or the last vestiges of the Sunday roast parsnips somehow making their way into the clear pink juices. Give the rhubarb a wash and then chop it into equal-sized logs—about 5cm long is ideal. You may want to go diagonal. Decisions, decisions.

Lay the rhubarb out in one layer, fitting it together like a jigsaw. There’s something rather satisfying about this order and it makes it easier to keep the elegant little sticks intact when it comes to using them later. Now sprinkle over a good teaspoon of sugar for each stem—I go for white as I don’t want to taint the princess-y pink.

The rhubarb itself is filled with juice, so just a squeeze of orange (a little zest tastes good too) is enough to set the rhubarb on its way as it bakes and steams.

Cover with a lid or a layer of foil and bake for 15-25 mins, depending on the thickness of your rhubarb. It may seem neurotic, but I begin checking after 10 and as soon as the stalks give a little to the touch, whip them straight out of the oven as they will continue to cook and soften a little more. Leave it too long and you’ll have a disappointing frothy mess (though delicious nonetheless).

Now you have a stunning supply of perfect, tender rhubarb that will keep in the fridge for five or six days, here’s what to do with it:

Savoury ways with rhubarb

Rhubarb’s sharpness is a brilliant foil for oily fish and rich meat.

—Fry shallot, chilli, garlic and ginger in vegetable oil and carefully turn some rhubarb logs over in the mixture. Season with salt and sugar as necessary—superb with grilled mackerel or for exotic sardines on toast.

—Add a couple of whole star anise and some cinnamon into the frying ingredients above, then throw in fresh coriander and a splash of soy sauce with the rhubarb. Perfect with belly pork, pork pie or a roast duck leg.

—Make herby couscous with saffron and roasted almonds, add rhubarb and serve with Moroccan-style lamb meatballs and labneh.

Sweet ways with rhubarb

—Serve the rhubarb, as is, on top of morning porridge, muesli or yoghurt.

—Slice up stem ginger and add with its syrup to rhubarb to accompany ice cream with amaretti biscuits.

—Top gingerbread (shop-bought works fine) with whipped cream and rhubarb.

—Make a pavlova.

—Use in tarts, where the ready-cooked rhubarb is perfect as it won’t weep into the custard or frangipane filling. Try this rhubarb and blood orange tart.

—Stretch out the juice with fresh orange juice to make tiny jellies or add it to a G&T.

—If you did end up with froth, stir it into cream for a rhubarb fool, add it to a smoothie, or blend it with marmalade or rose petal jam and add to rice pudding.