Nigel Slater’s sweet and savoury recipes for early rhubarb

Pretty pink rhubarb gives a fresh, acidic zip to roast meats and winter desserts

The greengrocer has a frayed wicker basket of rhubarb, the pale pink stalks laid in a soldierly row, like sticks of rock in a Blackpool sweetshop. I part with a king’s ransom for a kilo of spears so delicate they wouldn’t be out of place in a vase. Yes, I could have bought half a dozen mangoes for the same price, but the rhubarb will make a crumble second only to gooseberry, and a rose-pink fool when lightly cooked, chilled and folded in spidery threads through softly whipped cream.

The shy beauty of these early rhubarb stalks is deceiving. Their fragility hides a snap of acidity that will bring a pickle to life and lend a piercing contrast to the sweet fattiness of a pork chop or the glistening skin of roast duck. We eat so much pork in this house that at the butcher’s I opt for duck legs instead and roast them on a bed of peeled shallots that caramelise in their fat. The shallots become the backbone of a rhubarb pickle spiked with juniper berries and coriander seeds, whilst the duck goes back in the oven, dusted with sea salt, to crisp.Advertisement

The young stalks tend to collapse however carefully you cook them, falling into wisps that lack the body for a pie or a tart. No matter, the juice that comes from a batch of rhubarb cooked with orange juice and a little sugar is an eye-opener, a smack in the mouth that can be turned into a sorbet or a snow-textured granita. If you have a desire to keep your pieces of rhubarb intact for, say, a tart, then you can always roast them cut into cork-sized lengths, dusted with golden caster and the juice of a single orange. Lift them carefully from the dish and place on sheet of crisp and buttery puff pastry, then brush with the juice and a little melted fruit jelly, apple or quince if you have it.

Rhubarb and blood orange granita

The silky, pale pink purée with the crystalline crunch of the granita is delightful. I resisted the temptation to turn the cooked rhubarb into a fool, though to do so is easy enough: pour 200ml of double cream into a chilled bowl and whip until thick. It should just about be able to hold its shape. Stop before the cream is capable of standing in stiff peaks. Tenderly fold the rhubarb from the sieve into the whipped cream, cover and chill then serve under the granita.
Serves 4-6

rhubarb 750g
water 500ml
caster sugar 125g
blood oranges 3, small and juicy

Cut the rhubarb into short lengths about the size of a wine cork, then put them in a stainless steel or enamelled saucepan. Add the water and caster sugar. Finely grate 1 of the oranges, taking care not to remove any white pith from under the zest, and add to the rhubarb. Squeeze all 3 oranges and add their juice to the rhubarb.

Bring the rhubarb to the boil, then lower the heat and leave to simmer for 3 or 4 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and the rhubarb has softened.

Rest a large sieve over a wide jug or bowl and spoon in the rhubarb and its juice. Let the rhubarb sit in the sieve until it has finishing dripping. Pour the rhubarb juice into a plastic freezer container, cover with a lid and freeze for about 4 hours or until firm.

Transfer the rhubarb from the sieve to a food processor or blender and process to a soft, pink purée. Scoop into a bowl, cover and chill thoroughly.Advertisement

When the granita is frozen, scratch the surface firmly with the tines of a fork, pulling up furrows of water-ice crystals. Spoon the purée into serving dishes then add heaps of the granita on top.

Roast duck with rhubarb chutney


A dish of contrast: roast duck with rhubarb chutney.

Good stuff going on here. The sweet duck flesh and its crisp skin; the teasingly sweet-sharp pickled rhubarb and its juices. A perfect combination in so many ways, but I would serve a few potatoes with it, roasted separately, lightly crushed and scattered with a snow of salt flakes and thyme leaves pounded together with a pestle and mortar.
Sometimes, duck pieces come from the shops encased in plastic. If this is the case, dry the skin thoroughly with kitchen paper before roasting. You could make this with duck breasts, always easier to track down, but I think the meat is less interesting than the darker meat of the leg.
Serves 2

small banana shallots 6
olive oil 2 tbsp
duck legs 2 x approx 350g

For the chutney:
rhubarb 200g
juniper berries 1tbsp
coriander seeds 1 tbsp
cloves 6
honey 1 tbsp
cider vinegar 2 tbsp

Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel the banana shallots and cut them in half from tip to root. Lay them cut side down in a roasting tin then moisten with the olive oil. Season the duck legs with salt and black pepper then place on top of the shallots in the roasting tin and roast for 40 minutes.

Cut the rhubarb into lengths the size of a wine cork. Remove the roasting tin from the oven, transfer the shallots to a medium-sized saucepan and return the duck to the oven, seasoned with a good sprinkling of sea salt. Turn the oven up to 220C/gas mark 8 to crisp the duck skin.

Put the rhubarb in with the roasted banana shallots then add the juniper berries lightly crushed, the coriander seeds, cloves, honey and cider vinegar and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the rhubarb collapses.

When the skin is crisped, take the duck legs from the oven and serve with the rhubarb chutney. 

Email Nigel at nigel.slater@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter@NigelSlater

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