Recipe: Celebrate the rhubarb season with this fruity fool
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January need not be gloomy if you look ahead to food festivals such as Burns Night and Mardi Gras. February’s Wakefield rhubarb festival celebrates the brief season of a force-grown local delicacy, says Frances Bissell.
For such a gloomy time of year, January and February offer plenty of occasions for themed entertaining and cooking. Before Valentine’s Day pink food, there will be pancakes for Shrove Tuesday on the 9th, and festive food for carnival leading up to it, not to mention auspicious oriental dishes as the Year of the Monkey begins on February 8th.
In addition there are all those events dreamed up by lobbyists for a particular product or industry- today, for example is New England Clam Chowder Day. Winter months see numerous food festivals held around the world, such as Madrid Fusion at the end of January and the Taste of Paris in the Grand Palais from 11 -14 February. And around that same weekend there are countless wine and chocolate events. And, of course, Burns Night celebrations will be held this week and next, as well as on the day itself, Monday January 25th.
Some festivals are glamorous, such as the 15th South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Florida from 24 to 28 February; some are more esoteric, and possibly more inspiring. The Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield, held from the 19th to the 21st of February is the perfect example.
When the shelves are bare of English fruit, Yorkshire rhubarb is eagerly awaited at this time of year, for a very short season and never mind the price. It is grown in a small area of Yorkshire, known as the rhubarb triangle, centred on Wakefield, using an ancient and labour intensive method of forcing sheds, where the plant is kept in the dark and harvested by candlelight to keep it pale and pink.
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Yorkshire rhubarb is a real delicacy, and worthy of celebration like other seasonal food, such as asparagus, sea kale, wild garlic, Herefordshire cherries and wild sea trout.
It is a versatile ingredient and as well as making the most delicious crumbles and fools, and is a surprisingly good accompaniment to oily fish. The Dutch, as you might expect, also produce bright pink rhubarb, on a much larger scale, using chemicals to keep the stalks that characteristic shocking pink. Look for the real thing; it’s worth it.
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Main-crop rhubarb is much coarser than early rhubarb, with deep red skin, and a good, if tart, flavour. Rhubarb is also good in jams, jellies and other preserves, although only main-crop rhubarb has enough pectin to set on its own. Far dowdier than its Pucci-pink relation, this rather plain fruit (although strictly speaking a vegetable, we treat it as a fruit) is perfectly partnered by distinctive flavours such as vanilla or ginger.
1 kilo rhubarb
Honey to sweeten – see recipe
Seeds of 4 green cardamom pods
400-500 ml thick custard or double cream
Trim the rhubarb, cut into chunks and cook in a heavy, non-aluminium saucepan with the cardamom seeds and 2 tablespoons water. Strain the liquid and set to one side. Sweeten the honey to taste if you are using cream. Allow the fruit to go cold, then fold into the whipped double cream. The fool looks better if you do not overmix. If you are using one of the posh commercial custards – which makes this a very quick and easy dish – the rhubarb will not need sweetening. Spoon the fool into wine or martini glasses and serve with crisp biscuits.
If you feel like it making an extra effort, the reserved rhubarb juice can be mixed with softened gelatine and spooned over the top of the fool for an extra layer. Otherwise, use the juice in stunning cocktails. Rhubarb and cardamom martini, anyone?