Christopher Hirst explores some unlikely partnerships for rhubarb
In his great work Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, Clifford Faust explains ‘the several advantages’ of my home turf of West Yorkshire that made it the perfect terroir for rhubarb: ‘a climate northerly enough for a lengthy autumn dormancy period, high rainfall for maximum plant development, a smoky and polluted atmosphere that helps induce early and full dormancy, local availability of fuel (coke) and fertiliser (shoddy from the woollen industries and urban sludge).’ Growing up in the still-industrial West Riding, I have rhubarb juice in my veins and still adore the stalk that thinks it’s a fruit.
Of course, we always limited our intake to rhubarb as dessert, usually in pies though occasionally in crumble or simply stewed with custard. One unexpected combination was when my mother occasionally simmered it with a few strawberries. Trying it again after 40 years, I was pleased to re-discover this wonderful gastronomic marriage. With winter strawberries from Spain, you can use pink forced rhubarb but the shamefully under-regarded outdoor rhubarb works equally well in the dish when our native strawberries are at their glorious peak in June.
What we never enjoyed in my childhood was rhubarb as a savoury. The idea would have been deeply alien. Though rhubarb has become commonplace in main courses offered by posh restaurants (always the pricy pink stuff), it remains a rarity on the home table.This is a shame as a sampling of savoury rhubarb items proved.
Rhubarb relish (chopped stalks slowly simmered with brown sugar, vinegar, chopped onion and spices until it thickens) proved to be sensational – sweet-sour but gently rounded. Pork chop with rhubarb sauce (simmer with red wine, vinegar and chicken stock) was a very happy partnership – the sharpness of the ruby-red sauce cutting the sweet fattiness of the chop.
Perhaps the best known use of rhubarb as a savoury is in the Persian lamb known as khoresh. It is one of the great stews of the world. Each forkful delivers contrasting flavours – the sweetness of the lamb, the tartness of the rhubarb, sweetness again with the caramelised onion. After a bowl of khoresh you can see why the Persians regarded rhubarb as a holy vegetable.
- 1.5kg lamb shoulder, cut into 5cm chunks
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 6 tbsp butter
- pinch of saffron strands
- 700ml beef stock
- juice of one lemon
- handful of fresh parsley leaves
- leaves from 6 sprigs of mint
- 450g forced rhubarb or thin stalks of outdoor rhubarb, cut into 2.5cm piece
Sauté the finely chopped onions in 2 tbsp of the butter. Remove from the pan, add the chunks of lamb and brown in another 2 tbsp of butter. Add a generous pinch of saffron strands, stir well, then return the onions to the pan. Cover with the beef stock and add the lemon juice. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heart and simmer for one hour.
In a separate pan, sauté the parsley leaves and the mint leaves (retaining a few leaves of each for scattering) in 2 tbsp of butter. Add the parsley mix to the lamb and cook for 15 minutes. Add the chopped rhubarb and cook for another 15 minutes (or until meat is tender). Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve in a warm casserole dish.
Continue to boil the sauce in the pan until it is reduced by one third. Pour it over the meat, scatter over a few more parsley and mint leaves and serve with rice