Thank goodness the sun is meant to shine today and I am glad it did so on Friday – it was my brother’s 14th birthday!
It was fitting that we harvested our first carrots during his birthday week as he is our carrot and cucumber monster. We made burgers and chips to have with our salad on Friday and his classic dish – pasta, cheddar cheese, tuna and mayonnaise, pitta bread and salad last night. I made him his requested coffee walnut cake (nothing to do with garden produce, only the duck eggs I used are home produce, oh dear) and today I will be baking his second favourite, a marble cake as a surprise. It means a busy, wet week but I have managed to get something done in the garden:
Weeded and fed one of the runner bean trenches (yup, we have three this year).
Ripped old cauliflower leaves infested with cabbage white caterpillars and tried to coax the poultry into eating the. They unfortunately have never cared for them but the ducks love brassica leaves so I think they might eat a few by mistake when they are on the actual cauliflower leaves…
Netted my new cauliflowers.
Weeded and fed turnip patch.
Mum cleared away a trench of old forget-me-nots and moved some overcrowded raspberries there.
Mum planted out more peas I had grown indoors.
Mum gave the cucurbits a milk/aspirin anti-powdery mildew spray which they will really need in this weather.
Mum netted more strawberries, a blueberry bush and a redcurrant.
Mum potted on half the cucumbers into larger containers.
Continuing to pick strawberries, raspberries, salad leaves, radishes, beetroot, peas, broad beans, first carrots, first blackcurrants (just a couple darkening now). I’ve got a couple of courgettes almost ready and a cucumber on the way…
So there are plenty of fruits and vegetables in the world and only so many hours to talk about how to store them. Perhaps we should start with what is around right now and work from there?
Salad leaves – Lettuce, rocket, watercress and other cresses, like land cress or crinkle cress, (watercress wilts quickest) and spinach (wilts second quickest) are best eaten straight away once they have been picked and washed. To store it, I put mine in containers in the fridge mostly because I know I will be using it over the next few days. Other people keep theirs in plastic bags or between kitchen roll. If you have left the salad out for too long and it has wilted, leave it in a bowl of cold water to rejuvenate it before refrigerating it immediately. You can freeze green leaves, like spinach or lettuce but they will be incredibly soggy and are only useful for cooking. You might as well stick to fresh leaves rather than freezing them.
Carrots – If you are using them over a couple of days then they can be again kept in the fridge in a plastic bag or a container. Otherwise, the traditional way of storing them is in a cool, dark place in a box filled with dry sand. This can also be done to swedes, celeriac, sweet chestnuts, parsnips, celery and beetroot (celery will keep in the fridge for ages. Swedes and celeriac can be left in the ground for months at a time).
Peas – Best eaten as soon as they have been podded if consumed raw. If they are slightly too old to be delicate enough to eat raw, pop them into a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and serve. To freeze them, once you have boiled them, place them in freezing ice-cold water for a few minutes until cool. Place them in plastic bags ideal for the freezer, make sure no air has been caught inside. Freeze them and use over the next few months. This is the same technique for runner beans, broad beans or sweetcorn (by the way, sweetcorn loses its taste rapidly after being picked. It needs to be cooked and eaten or frozen asap).
Onions – Once pulled out of the ground, lay them out on newspaper to dry out, turning them over so that both sides are dealt with. Then, suspend them from the ceiling in a cool room or inside hessian/netted sacks. We use our utility room as it is very cool and is not too light.
Garlic – harvest the bulbs whole from the ground and place in a cool, dark place. We keep ours on a low-down shelf in out kitchen. When using, take one segment from the entire garlic bulb at a time, peel and use. From my experience, homegrown garlic tends not to keep as long as shop bought garlic so only pull them up from the ground a little at a time, don’t be tempted to harvest them all at once.
Potatoes – I worked out last year that potatoes can be left in the ground for a long time and you do not need to rush to dig them up unless you have a wire worm or slug problem. Even if they have blight, they will keep better in the ground rather than out of it. However, to store them once they have been harvested, copy the same technique used for drying onions, laying them out on newspaper and turning them over. Then put them inside hessian sacks in a dark place, like a cupboard under the stairs to prevent them from turning green and becoming unusable.
Berries – If you can’t eat them all fresh at once because you have a glut or want to spread them out for later in the year, freeze them in plastic bags or containers once they have been washed and slightly dried. To use them, defrost well and drain the excess liquids that will taste a little to fridgey. Some berries like raspberries, blueberries or grapes should taste fine uncooked once they have been frozen. Other berries, like strawberries, have such a high water content that they will taste strange once defrosted raw. I prefer to use my frozen fruit for jam or inside cooked puddings, like muffins, cakes, stewed fruit dishes, crumbles or pies. I save the fresh fruit for eating uncooked.
Summer squashes: Courgettes – You might have been starting to pick some already. These are best sliced from the plant, washed and cooked straight away but can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, depending on the variety and the ripeness of the vegetable. Best stored in an air-tight container or a plastic bag. Boil, fry, grill or roast them. Courgettes cannot be frozen because of their high water content, much like strawberries. Winter squashes (e.g. Butternut squashes and pumpkins can be frozen once they have been roasted – Slice, into small pieces, lay out on a baking tray and drizzle generously in olive oil. Roast in a preheated oven of 180C for about 40 minutes or until they are browned. Allow to cool. Place in plastic bags and freeze straight away). Courgettes and cucumbers will only become sloppy mush when frozen so do store them only in the fridge or eat straight away.
Cabbages: Can be stored whole in the fridge for a few days. If the outer leaves start to brown, wilt too much or go mushy, peel them off and discard them and use the rest if unaffected. If cooked, cabbages can last in a container for about three days. This is the same for cauliflower and broccoli (broccoli seems to brown slightly quicker out of the two when stored in the fridge).
Spring Onions – Can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days. If the outside skin starts to dry up or the stem wilts too much, cut and peel the outside coating off and use what is underneath if it is unaffected.
Radishes – Likewise, they can be stored whole in the fridge or cut up and kept raw in a container for about two or three days before they will start to brown and become un-appetising.
Kale – Store in an air-tight container, raw, for up to a week maximum inside the fridge. Once cooked, store in a container for two or three days in the fridge.
Oriental greens – Think Pak Choi, Tatsoi, Komatsuna, Chinese Cabbage, Mibuna, Mitzuna, Mizpoona… Once cooked, they can be stored for about two days. Raw, they might be able to last a little longer in the fridge before they wilt or turn to liquid. Treat them more like spinach, liable to becoming soggy after some time being picked.
Tomatoes – It might be slightly early to write about tomatoes but it is getting close enough. I did not know until last year that tomatoes keep their looks and taste longer if stored outside the fridge. Gardner James Wong (‘Grow for Flavour’) suggests keeping them in a fruit bowl. We tried this last year and it does work well. It also allows some of the slightly under-developed ones to ripen. If freezing the tomatoes, dunk them briefly into a pan of boiling water to shed their skins before placing them into cold water, likewise for the beans and peas. Store in plastic bags in the freezer and use in dishes where you would use cooked/tinned tomatoes or make tomato chutney.
I get plenty of information about gardening and cooking from the internet, other people and clippings from my grandma’s Telegraph subscription but there is something very traditional and homey about owning a cookery or gardening book. The worn out covers and smeared pages mark your favourites and photos are always pretty, making the gardens or the produce look alluring.
There are plenty of books I would like to share with you but I will restrict my self and start of small to make it easier to follow. I will begin with books that focus on cooking, followed by more gardening related ones and finally some wonderful novels I would recommend reading that make the outdoor life sound wonderful.
These cookery books are not garden focused but include so many great recipes for the home-grower that they come highly recommended from me.
‘Puddings’ – Johnny Shepherd. This is a great book for anyone who loves baking or puddings but it is also surprisingly useful for the fruit-grower. Johnny Shepherd chooses fresh, seasonal fruits and offers lots of traditional and exciting recipes with optional twists that could help you use up any gluts in a tasty way, offering inspiration when you are stumped. His recipes include fools, jellies, pies, crumbles, tarts, cakes, sundaes, steamed puddings… The fruit he includes are rhubarb, strawberries, peaches, raspberries, gooseberries, plums, pears, nectarines, bilberries, apples… Think blackcurrant fool, rhubarb cake, peaches with raspberry coulee, nectarine tart, lemon meringue pie, steamed apple pudding, gooseberry suet pudding, blood orange jelly, poached pears, bilberry pie… It is a lovely book and well worth buying, for the puddings and the delicious ways of eating your fruit. I have already raved about his rhubarb fool:
His way of roasting rhubarb is the best way of cooking it I have found yet.
‘Leith’s Vegetable Bible’ – Polly Tyrer. An excellent book for vegetarians or people needing inspiration to make vegetables a central dish when they have grown a little too many courgettes, celery, potatoes etc. The book is divided into sections, some describe lentils and pulses or rice or pasta, others focus on the vegetable group, such as onions, roots, squashes. The entire book is vegetable focused and there will be plenty of options that you would not have considered before but they make them sound delicious. In each section they provide more information about the vegetables, including nutrition at the start of the book, and ways to cook them before launching into the recipes themselves. Recipes include parmender salad, Thai vegetable cakes, spiced black-eyes beans and potatoes, brown rice pilaff with Cajun vegetables, garden leaves with tomato and olives, pasta with cauliflower, saffron and tomato cream sauce, red potato bake, chickpeas and spinach curry, and plenty more.
My favourite Leith’s book by far.
‘Learning to Cook Vegetarian’ – Rose Elliot. I bought this book initially because of the title but meat-eaters should not be put off from using it too. There are lots of easy recipes using plenty of vegetables that will be tasty for all. Elliot offers nutritional information at the beginning before dividing the book into sections, like salad, vegetables, pasta, eggs, baking, rice, sauces. She includes alternatives for different needs and tastes in recipes (e.g. soya products for vegans or different ingredients in a dish, such as in her recipe pasta with courgettes, she suggests swapping the courgettes for asparagus or peas and mint). Some of my favourite recipes are pumpkin risotto, Mediterranean pasta, red bean and potato moussaka, tabbouleh, spicy chickpea ragout, her ideas for toppings on top of bruschetta are great too). Most of the dishes indulge in lots of different vegetables to inspire you when you are stumped with a new harvest from your veg patch and all are simple to prepare on a late evening.
The other collection of books I admire and use a lot for the garden as well as ideas for using the harvests is the collection of River Cottage handbooks. They are small and fit on your shelf or book pile cutely and include a stack of useful hints and tips. I am quite curious in purchasing the bread one…
‘River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch’ – Mark Diacono. The man who owns Otters Farm once worked for River Cottage and he wrote this hand book. It is small, to the point, divided into clear sections with good information about growing and harvesting the vegetables before offering some recipes (think vegetable tempura, feta and beetroot salad, leek and cleriac soup, glutney (glut chutney), turnip ‘risotto’, tomato on bruschetta…). He also wrote ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’ which is another one I would recommend (recipes for those interested include gooseberry tart, medlar jelly, apricots on toast, orchard ice cream with caramelised walnuts, pear and rocket salad, strawberry trifle and plum and hazelnut cake). He does make gardening sound easy with his positive attitude but they are books I go straight to if I need some brief information on a certain plant, such as recommended varieties, where to plant them, when to plant them and how far apart and cooking advice. The other two River Cottage Handbooks I would recommend for the kitchen gardner are ‘Preserves’ – Pam Corbin and ‘Hedgerow’- John Wright. ‘Preserves’ contains a lot of recipes and tricks to preserve your harvests. It contains the usual jams and jellies as well as pesto, bottled fruits or vegetables, vinegar, pickles, drinks… Their blackcurrant jam, gooseberry jam, Hedgerow jelly, Seville orange marmalade and redcurrant jelly recipes I have tried and are excellent. I also tried their chestnut jam – very long and slightly too sweet for my liking but I am not a fan of chestnuts in the first place so that is unsurprising and I would still recommend giving it a go if you ever forage a lot of sweet chestnuts in the autumn. Other interesting recipes include family ‘Beena’ drinks, nasturtium ‘capers’, pickled garlic, Harissa paste or apple and blackberry leather. ‘Hedgerow’ offers advice for foraging and identifying the larder growing in the hedge beyond your garden. If you care for foraging blackberries, why not try stretching yourself to try something unusual? There are lots of edible weeds out there that we tend to forget about now, same as the flowers growing in our garden (like primroses and nasturtiums). Wright splits up the book into useful sections and includes a poisonous section too. He provides information on seasons, descriptions, how to harvest and a little history too before providing a selection of recipes at the back for those with brave hearts (dandelion jelly marmalade, nettle soup, wild garlic parcels or chickweed pakoras, anyone?).
One of the perks of foraging outdoors is the tiny window during the year when one can harvest elderflowers. They bloom for a very short season, from sometime in May or June for only a couple of weeks. Last year we failed to pick any, the year before we did not do anything with them and left them to shamefully rot. This year, encouraged by my sister’s fete, my mum got on with making elderflower cordial the same day we picked them. To me, elderflower cordial reminds me of birthday parties from my childhood. We would serve elderflower cordial with sparkling water in plastic champagne glass shaped cups with our picnic spread out in the dining room. Once you have gotten over the wafting smell of cat pee when you pick your fresh elderflowers and they quickly start to brown, the elderflower cordial itself smells and tastes refreshingly delightful.
Elders are common, low growing shrub trees. The flowers grow in stalked umbrella sprays, five petalled, cream coloured with yellow stamens whilst the berries that grow from August to September are a dark purple or black with three small pips. Their habitat is ideal for nitrogen-rich areas (e.g. near rabbit warrens) which I suppose is why our favourite elder tree is found in a horse field densely populated by rabbits.
Elder trees have some interesting legends associated with them. To fell and elder tree is unlucky as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Burning the timber in the house will release the devil (despite deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire). Referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’, hanging a cradle from its boughs would encourage the wrath of the witch. However, planting an elder tree near your house is supposed to protect the occupants from evils, it will never be struck by lightening and will therefore protect you from a thunderstorm, warts and sorrows can be moved to an elder’s stick and buried.
Judas hanged himself from the elder and the Cross of Christ was supposed to be made from its timber.
Despite these fears, the elder tree has been used for plenty of medicinal cures over the centuries. Every part of the tree can be found to have been used for some cure.
The tree can be easy to recognise but you must be cautious as a few others can lead you stray – the Wayfaring Tree (earlier-flowering), the Rowan (which I have almost done before, that really does smell of cat wee) can be confusing as can the later Hogweed. The elderflowers will have a sweet smell, faintly of cat pee when the sun is too strong on it. You want to pick the white, opening blossoms and not the ones already turning slightly brown and falling easily from the stem as these will be inferior in your cordials.
If you cannot deal with all of your bounty straight away, you can leave them to dry in the oven with the door left open or in a dry place not in the sun. Otherwise, you can wrap them up in bags and freeze them. They will go brown but it will taste just the same in your cordials, according to online discussions and our own experimentation.
Once you have made the elderflower cordial, use as a drink, make into elderflower ice cream or syrup or use it in my latest discovery, Strawberry and Elderflower Cake, coming soon.
(Makes 2 litres)
– 25 Elderflower heads, de-stalked – Finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (used separately) – 1kg granulated sugar – 1tsp citric acid
1. Place the harvested flower heads in a large bowl with the stems removed. Add the lemon zest.
2. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour it over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag/piece of muslin over a large saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the citric acid. Heat the ingredients gently to dissolve the sugar then turn it down to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
4. In an oven preheated to 120C, sterilise glass bottles. Remove them from the oven once they are hot and leave to cool.
5. Using a funnel, pour the hot syrup into the sterilised bottles. Seal with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Leave them to cool and then keep in the fridge for 4 weeks or put it in the freezer to keep for a few months. Alternatively, you can sterilise plastic bottles or ice cream containers using hot water and keep the cordial frozen in these – leave a small gap between the top of the plastic bottle/container and the cordial itself to prevent them from exploding in the freezer.
My sister is currently raising money for her trip to Tanzania next summer. One event she had to do lately was set up a stall at a fete. As chief jam maker of the house, it was way of contributing. Problem was there were no berries for picking and the jams I had from last year were gooseberry, bramble jelly and apple jelly, all packaged in Bonne Mamen jars (you can’t sell it in a branded jar) and quite old with goodness knows what growing under the lids… It was the perfect time to dig out all of the plastic bags and yoghurt pots containing mixtures of fruit that had been shoved inside the freezer as they were ‘too much effort’ to go picking through. A mixture of raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, jostaberries and tayberries went in the pot together and ended up with something pretty edible and with a wonderful name I found online – ‘Jumbleberry Jam’. I only made 15 jars and my sister sold 11 (15 and a half, I got to keep and eat the half jar as a cook’s perk). The blackcurrants dominated the mixture along with the raspberries – just as well as those are two of the best jams in the world!
I am a jam enthusiast. First it was raspberry obsession, then I discovered blackcurrant, homemade plum (shop ones are always disappointing), bramble jelly, apple jelly, gooseberry, boysenberry and of course strawberry. I would love to try making strawberry jam one year but there is no way I will manage to harvest enough this year. We have been eating them fresh every evening and I need at least 1kg for a couple of jars worth – I will have to shelve that fantasy for the time being and stick to making raspberry and allowing myself the occasional indulgence of buying strawberry jam from Sainsbury’s.
I must admit, I am famous for making runny jam that doesn’t set, even when I add bottled pectin from the shops. However, I think I have worked out how to do it now: do not be impatient about boiling (get on with another job in the kitchen and keep an eye on it rather than standing around waiting), do not be afraid of using lots of lemon juice and use bottle pectin, especially when making jam with berries low in pectin or fruit that has been frozen (they lose some pectin that makes the jam set). The Jumbleberry jam set very well – too well, it was solid and only just spreadable, but after experience I would say most people prefer very set jam to the kind of jam that runs off your toast and goes everywhere but inside your mouth.
This is the perfect recipe for anyone who has old fruit hanging around in the freezer to clear out to make way for this year’s pickings. Enjoy!
(Makes enough for 4 medium sized jars)
1 kg mixed berries and currants – 1 kg granulated sugar – Juice of at least 1 lemon, three is best or more – Half a bottle of — pectin
In a large plan, place the fruit and turn it on to high flame. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir in until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring now and then.
Place a china plate in the freezer in advance for the pectin test.
Allow the fruit to boil furiously for more than ten minutes, stirring occasionally to see how it is going. When the mixture starts to feel slightly gloopy and sticks more to the spoon without looking as runny as it did before when it drips off, remove the plate from the freezer and add a dollop onto the surface. Place it back in the freezer for a couple of minutes then take it out and run your index finger through the middle. If the jam is set and wrinkles where you push your finger through, it is ready. If it does not, continue to boil until it does so.
Once done, turn off the heat and pour in the pectin, stirring it in. Leave the jam to cool.
Preheat the oven to 150C and sterilise the jam jars and the lids inside – they are done when they feel hot to the touch. Remove these from the oven and allow them to cool.
Once the jam has cooled slightly and so have the jars, ladle the jam into the jars, place a wax disk over the top if you have any and put the lid on top, using a damp cloth to clean up any spillage running down the sides. Place the jars overnight in a cool place. They will be ready for eating the following day and should last for months.
The weather this week was a great improvement. It was the sort of weather you wanted to be outside in all day long; half the time playing in the garden, the other half lying in a cooling swimming pool! It was my sister’s fete today, raising money for her school trip to Tanzania next year so we got little done in the garden this week as we donated a fair chunk of time to preparing for it. It involved mum preparing a lot of plants (digging them up, potting them on, etc.), picking elderflowers and making elderflower cordial (more shortly), lemon verbena sugar (again, more coming soon) and for me making fifteen jars of ‘Jumbleberry’ jam (more next week). Well, fifteen and a half – I got to keep the half from one of the batches to eat on my toast myself and it was delicious, I just finished up the pot this afternoon.
This week we managed to:
Net some strawberries from the birds that have found them already. We have started picking them (some wild strawberries, some posher ones) which we have eaten with chocolate cake and pouring yoghurt for pudding at night.
Mum netted a redcurrant bush today. I netted a blueberry whose flowers have finished.
Weeded hamburg parsley, beetroot and turnip broccoli and fed them.
Planted out last three courgettes from indoors and the only pumpkin (I only had three seeds left as I never bought anymore this year and only one germinated so it might be pumpkin-free harvest this year. Fortunately, I have LOTS in the freezer left over from last year…). I also fed the other courgettes and winter squashes.
I’ve started weeding the garlic patches.
Mum fed the potatoes with liquid feed.
I planted out Nigella flowers, lupins, cosmos flowers.
I planted out two new runner-beans today and sowed indoors more peas and soy beans. The soy beans are just refusing to germinate this year.
We harvested more salad, including the first beetroot of the year and some more peas and new kale (I’m giving the old flowered kale to the chickens and pigs now along with two lettuces that bolted. There are plenty left to make lettuce soup from and sharing is caring). The broad beans are ready to start harvesting next week.
On a sadder note, I did see my first cabbage white caterpillars crawling all over a flowered broccoli. There was a mixture of feelings, something like being close-to-tears. I haven’t seen anymore, yet…
Next week I will be posting more information about making Jumbleberry jam to use up any left over fruit in the freezer to make space for this year’s harvests. I will be writing about how to store your harvests shortly and recommend some reading material, for practical and enjoyment purposes!
We finally got round to harvesting some of our rhubarb, a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, a couple of weeks ago. We have quite a lot ready for picking this year…
Rhubarb contains a good amount of fibre, hence why it was used in ancient Chinese medicine for soothing stomach ailments and constipation. 122g of rhubarb provides 45% of your daily amount of vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and limits neuronal damage in the brain. It contains vitamin C, A (the red stalks provide more of this than the green ones, good for vision, protection against cancers, good skin and mucus membranes), B vitamins, as well as other nutritional benefits such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and folate. A serving of cooked rhubarb provides us with as much calcium as a cup of milk would and is on the short list alongside salmon and spinach for food that provides us with the most calcium.
Rhubarb was a native of Siberia, found growing on the banks of the river Volga. The earliest recordings of rhubarb date back to 2700BC in China although it is believed that it was used as a drug even before this date. The plant was cultivated for medicinal purposes, particularly as an ailment for gut, liver and lung conditions. Marco Polo is attributed with bringing rhubarb, or ‘Rhacoma’ root, as a drug to Europe during the thirteenth century. The plant was so popular that in England during 1657, its asking price was three times that of Opium. The rise of modern medicine after the sixteenth century and the failure of the British trying to introduce the wrong strain of rhubarb to use as a drug replaced the root’s use for healing.
The first recorded planting of rhubarb in Europe was in Italy in 1608. It was not until 1778 that the plant was recorded as being grown for food in Europe. It was not until the Chelsea Physics Garden discovered forcing rhubarb in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil during the winter, that the vegetable became a British favourite. When the gardeners removed the soil, they discovered some tender shoots growing. These were found to have a superior taste, gaining favour with the public as commercial growers began to adopt the technique. The earliest cooking method of eating rhubarb was in tarts and pies.
The forcing of rhubarb began in 1877 in Yorkshire, where the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb of course sprouts from. The Whitwell family are acknowledged as being the first family to produce enough rhubarb to out-sell the London markets. Special sheds were built for growing rhubarb in, prolonging the season. Yorkshire is an ideal place for growing rhubarb as it possesses the ideal requirements for growing the crop: cold, wet and a good deal of nitrogen in the soil. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and other markets could no longer compete and ceased altogether. The production of rhubarb centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, becoming ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.
During the Second World War, rhubarb became diet staple as the government charged a shilling per pound of Yorkshire rhubarb to keep it financially available. The rhubarb industry became one of the largest providers of employment during these years. Despite this, sugar was difficult to get hold of and the sharp taste of rhubarb needs to be softened by this particular ingredient. After being a nutritious part of the human diet during the 1940s, rhubarb’s popularity dropped due to the undesirable memories of war-time children who had to suffer the strong taste of rhubarb for too long. When the war was over and overseas refrigerators became available along with the chance to purchase and store exotic, tropical fruits, rhubarb was abandoned in the garden and the producers began to suffer huge losses, some going bankrupt, some selling their businesses.
Despite the decline, rhubarb is starting to raise itself up again. More and more chefs are advertising new recipes to include rhubarb in – one does not have to restrict themselves to using it in a crumble, although that can be one of the most yummy, traditional ways of using it, as long as you remove the fuzzy feeling you can get on your teeth by not sweetening it enough. All of my latest cookery finds have some ingenious ideas for using this beautiful pink and green vegetable masquerading as a fruit: cakes, fools, pies, tarts, steamed puddings, stewed on its own and served with another pudding like a cheesecake, soufflés, grunts, muffins, jams, jelly, yoghurt, ice cream, raw rhubarb sorbet… The list goes on.
We were given various rhubarb plants by friends last year so I do not know the names of all of them. However, I am pretty sure we have bought ourselves ‘Champagne’, ‘Victoria’ (fruits later) and ‘Timperley Early’ (produces earlier than most varieties and does have a fairly high chilling requirement so it is suitable for cold areas).
You can buy young crowns of rhubarb or established ones. When buying young crowns, allow the plant to establish for a year in the soil before harvesting from them. Rhubarb likes to be planted in rich, well-manured soil in the full sun and water through dry periods. Allow 90cm between plants.
Forcing rhubarb: In Yorkshire, the plants are grown in a field for two years before being brought indoors each winter after a cold period to induce dormancy. The warm sheds encourage the plants to awaken but light is excluded, making the plant resort to its own glucose reserves in its base to feed the early growth of the new stalks. Without the light, the rhubarb grows a livid pink colour and is more sweeter and succulent than the versions not forced. It is romantically harvested by candlelight as strong light halts growth. We can replicate Yorkshire’s forcing techniques simply at home. Place a rhubarb forcer or, in our case, a large bucket over the small crowns in late winter after piling fresh manure around it (this raises the temperature and the speed of growth). Forcing rhubarb will give you hopefully a harvest four or five weeks ahead of the main harvest time.
Depending on the variety of the plant and the weather, one can start harvesting rhubarb in March until the end of July. You need to stop picking as the plant growth slows down to allow it to store reserves of energy for growth the following year. Choose tender stalks. These are stems with good colour, where the leaves have just unfolded fully. Do not cut the stems. Instead, grasp the chosen stem low on the plant, give a sharp pull and twist in order to remove it cleanly. Rip the leaves off and discard into the compost heap – don’t give them to the animals as they are poisonous, despite what my pigs might say after breaking out and rampaging the neighbour’s crops of rhubarb and our own, they love it!
As far as pests and diseases go, there are not too many threats for this vegetable. If you notice limp foliage, weak steams nad new buds dying during the growing season your plant could have fungal disease, crown rot. You just have to be brave and discard the plant and purchase new crowns for planting.
If flowers appear on your plants (they did on a couple of ours last year), cut them off as they reduce the vigour of the part of the rhubarb you want to eat. In the autumnal months, remove the withering leaves and add well-rotted manure and mulch to encourage them for the next season.
So now I can finally offer you pudding recipes. I love puddings, especially homemade ones. I eat one after supper without fail every night for ultimate comfort and although it is often a cake, or something covered in chocolate, that I have made, I do love a good fruity pudding and I have recently purchased the ‘Puddings’ cookbook by Johnny Shepherd. He is obviously a fan of rhubarb and includes a fair number of interesting recipes involving it. Instead of launching straight into crumbles or rhubarb cakes, I played around with his recipe for rhubarb fool first of all before going for the crumble. I have had the best rhubarb crumbles at school. I was never too keen on the dishes they served but their chocolate sponge and custard (of course), jam roly poly, macaroni cheese, baked potatoes, apple crumble and, finally, rhubarb crumble with custard were all delicious. The thing I never liked about rhubarb crumble was the fuzzy texture you get on your teeth after eating it. There is little you can do about this other than to use a good amount of sugar, to cook it well or to peel off the outsides and to serve it with something like custard to combat the texture. When making the crumble this year, I decided to try roasting it first of all using Shepherd’s technique to see if this would help. It did reduce it quite a lot and it was delicious and went down a treat with the family.
By the way, we just picked some strawberries and ate them with homemade chocolate cake with some pouring yoghurt last night – delicious! I am going through a real strawberry phase at the moment. My favourite breakfast is strawberry and rhubarb yoghurt and if I get enough strawberries (those pesky birds ate most of them last year), then I would love to try making strawberry and rhubarb conserve, just to try. They making a surprisingly delicious match.
Here is my adaption of Johnny Shepherd’s fool recipe and my rhubarb crumble. I never took an photographs of my fool as it tasted amazing and looked revolting so I have included his photo instead to inspire rather than put you off. The crumble is my own though.
Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool
For the rhubarb: – 500g rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm batons – 175g caster or granulated sugar – 10 cardamom pods, cracked
For the custard: – 315ml double cream – 3-4 large egg yolks – 48g caster sugar
– 300ml double cream
Preheat the oven to 160C. On a non-stick baking tray, lay out the rhubarb and cardamom seeds, sprinkling 75g of the sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft and tender.
Meanwhile, make the custard: Put the cream into a non-stick saucepan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat.
Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the top, whisking all the time. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and place over a medium flame, whisking, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Leave the pan to cool slightly before putting it in the fridge to chill completely.
Return to the baked rhubarb once it is done in the oven. Pour the excess liquid from the tray through a sieve into a saucepan. Discard the cardamom pods. Heat the saucepan of liquid on the stove over a high flame to reduce it to a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb along with the remaining 100g of sugar. Place to one side and allow to cool before keeping it in the fridge until fully chilled.
In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
Once you are ready to serve, remove the custard and the rhubarb from the fridge and combine. Carefully fold the cream into the rhubarb and custard to create a rippled effect. Serve in bowls.
For the Topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter (or unsalted with a good pinch of salt) – 55g caster sugar
For the fruit: – 400-500g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long – About 75g caster or granulated sugar – 100g caster or granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 160C. On a baking tray, spread the cut rhubarb out and sprinkle 75g of sugar over the top generously. Put the tray in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side. Turn the oven up to 180C.
Pour the juice of the rhubarb into a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and allow it to bubble until it has turned into a thick syrup. Turn down the heat to simmer and stir in 100g sugar and the rhubarb. Remove from heat.
Prepare the topping: In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter and sugar with your fingertips until it has a breadcrumb consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter and a dash of sugar. Likewise, if it is too wet, add a little more flour and sugar to the mixture.
Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
Bake the crumble in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm with custard.