Rhubarb rules – OK?

Blossom

This time of year used to be known as the hungry gap because of the dearth of fresh produce available in the garden. I’ve just lifted the last of my leeks and (now very fibrous) parsnips, and the purple-sprouting broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific this year, is going to flower faster than I can harvest and eat it. The asparagus is just showing, but won’t be ready for a week or so yet – especially if we don’t have any much-needed rain! But there’s one crop you can always rely on in an English garden in the springtime: good old rhubarb.

Both my early and late varieties are now in full swing, giving me ample pickings for pies and other desserts several times a week – and plenty to give away to family and friends too, of course. There are so many ways to ring the changes with rhubarb, other than the ubiquitous compotes, crumbles, pies and fools, and I make it a personal challenge to experiment with new recipes each season. I’ve been trying for some time to recreate the delicious Swiss rhubarb tart, or Rhabarberwähe, I tasted in Basel on my year abroad, so this year I finally tracked down some authentic Swiss recipes and experimented: result! By combining a couple of the recipes I unearthed (see here for the originals: Rhabarberwähe and again here – only in German, I’m afraid, I made a tart that closely resembled my Proustian memories. It’s not dissimilar to my favourite rhubarb shortbread recipe, but creamier, with added double cream, although one of the original recipes I found used quark – if you can lay your hands on the proper full-fat version, rather than its poor relative, the 0% fat offering which is often all that’s available in UK supermarkets. I imagine crème fraîche would work just as well. I used a shortcrust pastry tart case in my experiment as I had one lying around (as you do), but a sweet shortcrust pastry would be even better – and more authentic. I halved the recipe for my trial, but this is the full quantity – just halve everything for a smaller tart.

Swiss Rhubarb Tart – serves 6

Rhabarberwahe

Sweet pastry:
5oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1oz caster sugar
pinch salt
2 tsp milk
2 1/2 oz butter
1/2 beaten egg

Filling:
Generous 1lb rhubarb (5 or 6 stalks), trimmed and chopped into 1/2″ chunks
3 tbsp ground almonds
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 eggs, beaten
150 ml double cream (or quark)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp vanilla sugar

First, make your pastry case: sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Stir in sugar, egg and milk until evenly mixed, then work in butter (I find it easier if you grate it from cold) using fingers. Knead lightly to form a smooth dough, then chill in fridge for 30 mins. Do not leave too long, as it will set really hard and be impossible to roll!

When chilled, roll out on a floured surface (it will be very fragile, but can be patched if necessary!). Line a 9″ tart tin, then bake blind at 200°C/Gas 6 for 10 mins, then remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 mins until just set and golden.

For the filling: sprinkle the ground almonds over the base of the part-baked tart case, then scatter the rhubarb pieces on top and sprinkle with sugar. Return the tart to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the rhubarb starts to soften.

In a separate bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cream (or quark), vanilla sugar (you could just use caster here if that’s all you have) and vanilla extract, then pour over the part-baked rhubarb in the tart. Return the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until just set. Leave to cool and dust with icing sugar to serve – so good.

Another rhubarb-based pudding I discovered this year came originally from the BBC Good Food magazine calendar, often an excellent source of inspiration, if only as the pictures tantalise me every morning as I walk past! This is a posh take on a bread and butter pudding, and very comforting and delicious it is too. Again, I halved the ingredients and it still lasted several meals – warms up beautifully in the microwave too.

Rhubarb & Ricotta Brioche Pudding – serves 8

Rhubarb brioche pudding uncooked

500g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 3cm pieces
150g caster sugar
300ml whole milk
300m double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk (I just used 2 eggs when halving the mix)
250g brioche, thickly sliced
35g butter
200g ricotta
25g icing sugar
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange

Heat 100 ml water in a small pan and add 50 g of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil, then add the rhubarb. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and arrange on a single layer on a tray or plate. Set aside to cool.

Put the milk and cream in a large pan and bring to the boil, than add the vanilla. Beat the eggs, extra yolk and remaining sugar in a large bowl, then pour over the warm cream and milk mixture. Set the oven to 160°C fan or Gas 4.

Slice the bread and butter, then spread the ricotta thickly on top of the buttered bread. Cut into triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the citrus zest, then layer the slices with the rhubarb in a large 20 x 30cm baking dish – a lasagne-type dish is perfect. Pour over the egg and cream mix and leave to stand for 30 minutes (this makes the end result lighter).

Place the dish in a large roasting tin and pour boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 45-50 mins until puffy, set on top and golden. Remove from the oven, but leave to cool in the dish for about 10 minutes before serving.

Dust with icing sugar and serve with pouring cream or crème fraîche for a lusciously lovely spring treat.

rhubarb brioche pud cooked

My final variation on a rhubarb theme is an adaptation of a cake I usually make in September with my plum harvest: plum and almond cake, equally good as a dessert or a cake with tea. I do a different rhubarb upside-down cake, where the fruit is all piled on haphazardly, but this was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group on Facebook, who posted a picture of a rectangular rhubarb tart with the rhubarb immaculately laid out in a chequerbord design. Very smart.

Rhubarb Lattice Cake – serves 8

Rhubarb lattice cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into equal 4cm lengths
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp milk

Grease and line an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin with baking parchment – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.

Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the rhubarb pieces on top in a neat lattice pattern. If you use a round tin, as I did, you’ll need to trim the outside pieces as you go to fit the tin.

Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients and orange zest, alternating with the milk and orange juice.

Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. Remove the parchemnt to serve.

Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way! You could also add chopped stem ginger and 1 tsp ground ginger instead of the cinnamon in the sponge, substituting 2 tbsp stem ginger syrup for the orange juice.

Leo watching bluebells Tapsells 2019

 

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Easter Glory

Easter tree 2019

The beauty of the Easter weekend is that we have four whole days to relax, see family and friends, go out and about AND catch up on the garden/allotment. Bliss. With a new granddaughter in the family, no surprise that Sunday was spent with family, on Saturday I visited the Standen Tulip Festival near East Grinstead with my parents, and on Monday I had a long lunch out with friends. However, that still left me time to get on in the garden at home and at the allotment too – perfect! The fabulous weather really was the icing on the cake – most unusual for a bank holiday weekend in the UK!

Standen technicolour tulips 2019

 

Standen tulips

I made a start on the allotment last weekend, but am having to be very strict and pace myself so as not to overdo it with my slowly recovering knee. Three hours up there the previous Sunday felt quite strenuous, so I’ve been trying to go down in the evenings as part of my late dog walk and just do half an hour’s weeding: the joys of raised beds is that it’s quite possible to weed and prepare a whole bed in half an hour, instantly making a huge difference. The upshot of this week’s half-hours here and there was that, when I went up yesterday, I was already in a position to sow seeds in my salad and root crop beds: carrot St Valéry, parsnip Countess and beetroot Cylindra, and turnip Oasis (a new extra-sweet variety I’m trialling for the first time this year. On the salad front, I planted perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard, rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, dill, coriander, agretti (let’s see if I can manage to grow it without the slugs devouring every last fibre this time!), Watermelon radish, Florence fennel, and Welsh onions. I also dug my potato trenches and planted out two rows of potatoes: Arran Pilot and salad variety Nicola. Flower seeds also went in for my new extended cutting garden: Cosmos Purity, sunflower Autumn Beauty, Achillea Summer Berries, Poppy Ladybird and Calendula Pink Surprise. I’d already lifted some strawberry runners from my existing (and couch grass-infested) strawberry patch last Sunday to start a new bed at the reclaimed end of the plot: very satisfying.

The tulips have been fabulous this year, both the cutting specimens at the allotment and the container-grown specimens at home. I reverted to planting mixtures of tulips this year, rather than single varieties in each container, and by and large they have all flowered together and looked stunning, set off beautifully by the seed-grown wallflowers (Giant Pink and Sunset Purple). The container below has red Escape and red-and-white striped Rio de Janeiro: beautiful with the dappled sunlight in the back garden.

Red and white tulips

This container has Lemon and White Flag tulips with Sunset Purple wallflowers – just exquisite and a long season of interest to boot.

White tulips amd wallflower

The blossom is heavenly this year too, presumably having benefited from last year’s summer heat. It remains to be seen whether the fruit crops will be equally good. Anyway, back to the grindstone – still heaps to do! I had intended to plant out my autumn-sown sweet peas and sow some mange-touts and sugarsnap peas, but ran out of time. There’s always next weekend… In the meantime, I think I’ll seek some help to mow the allotment grass and do some of the heavier weeding – there’s only so much you can (or should!) do with a recovering knee 🙂

 

 

 

Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips