There’s a lot more to rhubarb than crumbles and compotes. Until a week ago, I filed forced rhubarb away in the same place I put pulled pork: terms for food that seem to make no sense and just make menus longer.
I guess it didn’t help that I still have the Millennial use for ‘pulling’ as a verb for someone you snogged in Kingston’s New Slang nightclub back when you had braces. Whatevs. A working understanding of forced rhubarb was not something I felt I needed in my life. That was until I was given some forced rhubarb from Yorkshire and suddenly found myself waxing lyrical about the magic of this incognito vegetable.
Ignorant to a world of rhubarb triangles, rhubarb express trains and harvesting by candlelight, my winters have been bereft of this hot pink herbaceous perennial for too long. So although I was pretty sure rhubarb couldn’t be in season for February, I started poking around online for an explanation.
It wasn’t five minutes before I found a sentence that stuck with me like no other for days: deprive a plant of sunlight and it will grow twice as fast to find some more. You can’t force anything to grow, but you can make it super keen. There’s some mid-winter motivation right there. Essentially, forced rhubarb is made by subjecting the poor things to two years out in the frost, where the plants store the energy from the sun in their roots as carbohydrates. Then, they’re moved into sheds and kept in complete darkness, and the stored carbs in the barb’s roots turn into glucose, creating the bittersweet flavour unique to the forced variety. Because any exposure to light would ruin this process, the rhubarb is harvested only by candlelight.
After being forced and pulled and frozen, rhubarb still manages to be sweet, sour and that glorious, saccharine shade of pink half of Dalston has been attempting to dye their hair for years. I didn’t pay much attention in Biology but I’m pretty sure that’s no mean feat. There might be two more months until Game of Thrones shines back into our lives and words like ‘parks’ and ‘cold’ and ‘wheat beer’ look good together, but for now, give me a few sticks of rhubarb, and I’m sure we can make do.
Poached forced rhubarb panna-no-cotta pots
Makes six portions
For the panna cotta:
360ml almond milk
2 tbsp tapioca flour or potato starch
3 tsp Agar powder or 4 tsp Agar flakes
400g can of coconut milk (full fat)
1 tsp vanilla, either straight from the pod or extract.
For the poached rhubarb:
5 tbsp water
2 tbsp caster sugar
4-5 stalks forced rhubarb
In a saucepan, mix together the almond milk, tapioca flour or potato starch, and Agar powder or flakes. Turn the heat up to a simmer and whisk constantly while continuing to simmer for about five minutes. You’ll see it thicken like a roux sauce, so make sure the temperature doesn’t go too high.
After five minutes, begin to add the coconut milk a little at a time, whisking as you go. Then add the sugar and continue to heat, whisking often for about ten minutes. Turn off the heat and add the vanilla or vanilla extract.
Now would be a good time to test how well your mixture sets, so test a small amount on a plate or saucer and leave to set for 2-3 minutes. If it works then you’re good to go! If not, just add a little more Agar and try again.
When you’re ready, pour the mix in to some ramekins or small glasses, leaving about 2cm space for the rhubarb to go on top. Allow to stand for about 30 minutes so you’re not putting them hot into the fridge, then once they’ve cooled a little, leave to chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
For the poached rhubarb, heat the water and sugar in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then add in the rhubarb and continue to stir every now and then for about five minutes. You’ll eventually see the rhubarb start to soften and form a compote mixture. Turn off the heat and allow to stand while the panna cotta sets. When you’re ready to serve, spoon the rhubarb over the panna cotta.
Words: Ava Szajna-Hopgood