Quite unlike Tara’s charming rhubarb story, the main way I’ve come by rhubarb recently is squatting on the pavement, picking out stalks from a crate. Once I encountered a slug so tiny that it was like the crescent of dirt beneath one’s fingernail. It glistened on the rhubarb stem. I flicked it off: no need for a slug to get comfortable on anything I’m about to eat.
June Taylor calls syrups ‘drizzly friends’ and I agree. This particular syrup is lovely to have at various points in the year; rhubarb lasts us through the winter, spring, and summer, firstly as tender pink forced rhubarb and then sturdy green-tinged stems. If you want fabulously pink syrup and fruit, choose the brightest, shimmering red-pink seaside rock stalks you can; from my jam-making experience, if the rhubarb’s very green, it tastes the same but resembles mucus upon cooking. Pale pink stalks are alright, but the finished syrup may turn more of a puce depending on the amount of orange zest you add.
I don’t know–up to you. I think that visual elements lends extra enjoyment to the proceedings, but no need to get too worked up over any of it. I always think it’s at least a little sad when people get extraordinarily stressed (justified or otherwise) over something which is supposed to make them happy.
The cooked rhubarb and its syrup rely on the fact that rhubarb stalks are mostly water. It practically makes itself aided by the heat of the oven: ignore it and let the rhubarb release its pink juice, dissolve the sugar and take on the orange and vanilla. Then you just strain out the stems, perhaps reduce the syrup judging by eye, and use both items as you want. Pretty low effort, and you have days worth of beautifully scented fruit ready to have with lots of things.
RHUBARB SYRUP + OVEN-POACHED STEMS
Adapted from Seven Spoons, which is in turn from (I think) Nigella Lawson’s recipe for rhubarb fool in Forever Summer (the recipe is available online via the Graun).
Keep chilled. Not sure how long either keeps for due to the fact that I keep eating them, but at least 5 days.
Makes 500ml syrup and plenty of cooked rhubarb, enough for at least 6 – 8 accompaniments to something else.
Vary the aromatics as you want. Vanilla and orange are somehow biscuity together, which I quite like, but I’ve also made it with mainly vanilla and it is the first creamy note you smell and taste, with the sour rhubarb freshness coming behind. The orange can dominate the vanilla, so best add it to taste.
About 1kg fresh rhubarb stems
150g – 200g granulated sugar (or more to taste)
1 whole vanilla bean (could replace with vanilla sugar or extract stirred in at the end)
Half the zest and juice of 1 large orange–add more to taste
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius/170 fan.
Clean and trim the rhubarb of any bad parts, then cut them into roughly 2 inch/5 cm chunks, adjusting slightly so that fat and skinny stalks cook at roughly the same time. Tumble them into a large ovenproof roasting tin or dish.
Put the sugar into a clear space in the tin. Split and scrape the vanilla bean, adding both the seeds and pod to the sugar, rubbing it all together and dispersing the seeds evenly throughout. Rub the orange zest into the sugar, too. Toss the rhubarb stalks with the fragrant sugar and squeeze over some orange juice.
Tightly cover the pan with foil (if you’ve an ovenproof lid, use that). Roast the rhubarb for 20 – 40 minutes. Quite a large margin, I know: perhaps because I used a metal pan, the rhubarb for me was done in 20 minutes. Check on it around the earlier time: the rhubarb should still hold its shape and be easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Be prepared to go on for longer if you’re using a thicker walled vessel.
If you think it necessary, remove the foil and roast the rhubarb for 5 – 10 minutes longer, just to reduce the liquid slightly.
Strain the rhubarb stems and catch the syrup. A sieve or colander will do, and I find it useful to drain the syrup into a lipped container to facilitate bottling later. Gently stir and press on the fruit to extract syrup. Remove fruit to a separate container (you may find that it continues to give off liquid, which you can collect if you like.)
Taste the liquid and the fruit separately to see if it wants sugar. I often find that the syrup is perfectly sweet enough, but the fruit needs sweetening for my tastes. Add more orange juice and zest if you think that’s needed. You could also boil the liquid on its own to really reduce it; up to you.
Bottle the syrup and cover the fruit. Chill until needed.
Suggestions for the syrup
- Soft drinks and cocktails–just still or sparkling water plus fresh mint is wonderful; Nigella Lawson recommends champagne.
- Drizzled over scoops of vanilla ice cream, as Tara suggests
- Use as a soaking syrup for sponge cakes
- With pancakes or similar
- Mixed into icing or cream for colour and flavour
Suggestions for the fruit, pureed or forked chunkily
- Made into a fool (link above); a classic British summer dessert
- Stirred into yoghurt or porridge, perhaps with slices of banana
- Rippled into a vanilla ice cream base
- Topped with crumble and baked
- Served with cream or warm custard
Obviously fruit and syrup can–should–be used together in any of these applications for their different properties.