This week Kate investigates the Rhubarb patch whilst Daffyd brews an Elderflower Cordial.
Our rhubarb (Rheum X hybridum) is thriving in the perennial vegetable bed along side pink and red poppies (Papaver spp), chard (Beta vulgaris spp) and Chrysanthemum coronarium. A greedy feeder, the rhubarb seems to be happy with our years of vigorous composting.
Rhubarb can be harvested from May onwards but in a plant’s first year, you should not harvest at all. In the second year, it’s best to harvest for only about two weeks, and you should only select stalks that are about 2cm wide and that are quite firm, always leaving at least five stalks on the plant. In subsequent years, you should be able to harvest for up to 10 weeks. A basic rule is never to harvest more than a third of the plant every season to avoid overstressing the plant.
The way to harvest rhubarb is to gently twist the stems and pull from the base or “crown” of the plant. This invigorates the roots to produce more stalks. Do not leave any broken stalks on the rhubarb plant as these can cause infections to grow. If you see any flowering stalks, remove these by also pulling the stalks from the crown. Once harvested, cut off the leaves from the stalk just above the stem. Do not eat the leaves as they contain oxalic acid. You can add the leaves to your compost. Or you can make a rhubarb spray from the leaves which is said to keep pests like aphids off your Brassica plants and roses. Simmer 1kg of rhubarb leaves in 2 litres of water for half an hour. Strain off the leaves. The resulting solution should be diluted at a ratio of 1:9 in water to create your spray solution which you should use immediately and not store.
There are two basic ways to cook rhubarb. You can bake it, covered with a lid or foil, if you want it to hold its shape. Or you can simmer it in a pan with a little water, fresh orange juice, or a ginger cordial. if you don’t mind it disintegrating into a purée of its own silky, soft fibres. In both cases, about 125g sugar tossed with 1kg cut rhubarb, before it goes in the tray or the pan, is a good ratio. Those with a sweeter tooth, can add more sugar to taste later.
Below are two simple recipes adapted from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, The Guardian 01/ 2007.
1kg rhubarb cut into short 4 – 5 cm lengths
Juice of a large orange
125 g golden caster sugar
Put the rhubarb, orange juice and sugar in a pan over a low heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Once simmering, it will take only five minutes or so for the rhubarb to break down into a purée. You can stop it when some of the rhubarb is still just holding its shape, but make sure it is quite tender and not at all crunchy. Use a sieve to strain off a little of the syrupy juice, so you get a slightly denser compote of rhubarb and some good, tart rhubarb syrup for the next recipe. Chill the compote.Serve with custard, yoghurt or icecream of a combo. of whichever you prefer
This is a wonderful, festive drink and uses up the syrup from the above recipe. Serves six.
100ml rhubarb syrup, from recipe above, chilled
1 bottle dry sparkling wine, chilled
Pour the chilled syrup into champagne flutes, then top up with the chilled sparkling wine. The mix will foam enthusiastically, so let it settle and top up again. You want to mix the two in a ratio of one part syrup to four parts fizz.
Elderflower Cordial Recipe to make 2 litres of cordial
Less can be made in proportion
20 Elderflower heads
2.5 kg sugar
1.5 litres water
1 lemon (unwaxed)
85 g of citric or tartaric acid
Dissolve the sugar in water in a large pan by slowly heating and bring just to the boil
Dip the flower heads in a bowl of water and shake to get rid of most insects and add to the sugar solution in the pan
Slice the lemon and add to the pan
Add the citric/tartaric acid
Cover pan and allow the mixture to steep for 12 to 24 hours
Sieve the solution through muslin or similar into a jug.
(I have used thick kitchen roll paper in a sieve to good effect)
This may take a while but do not be tempted make holes in the filter!
Ideally the cordial should be stored in sterile bottles.
If glass they can be sterilised in an oven (130 degrees C for at least 20 mins)
Or use a microwave for a washed slightly wet bottle for 45 seconds for a large bottle.
Alternatively, I use small plastic bottles of water or soft drink sold on offer in a supermarket and pour out the original contents and use the bottles straight away.