Rhubarb is a revelation of spring freshness in the kitchen, its pinkness welcome after a fruit-bare winter, the acidity good for burning off the extra fat accrued during the cold months in Scandinavia. Learn more about Scandinavian rhubarb.
Young adventurous Scandinavian cooks are finally discovering the virtues of rhubarb, using it in savory dishes as well as for desserts. For most of us, it is simply a most delicious and gloriously versatile fruit. You’ll find rhubarb in almost every garden, all over Scandinavia, even if it’s not always used in the kitchen. Kids play with the giant leaves and pick the young shoots to suck, filling their mouth with a strange acidity.
Related: Fruit From Scandinavia
Rhubarb has become so naturalized in the Scandinavian climate that it is hard to believe that it arrived only during the 16th century. Originally, it was imported as a medical plant, and that is how it was regarded for centuries, until the Scandinavians began to eat it in the early 1800s (when sugar became more affordable). Two centuries are nearly enough time to exhibit a truly Nordic touch in how we use rhubarb. Nevertheless, it is loved in the spring, its hardiness an important virtue when the ground is covered with snow for many months, as in the plant’s native Russia and northern China.
How it grows
Rhubarb is a superbly rewarding plant to grow. When the first shoots appear in spring it’s like a miracle – red, tightly leaves thrusting through the ground like small skulls, waiting impatiently to be born. And rhubarb is a survivor, growing on for decades even in derelict gardens, becoming larger and larger if the soil is fertile, and is happy even in dappled shade. Some varieties are grown for their abundance, others for their extreme hardiness. We prefer the early cultivars because the growing season is so short.
Related: Scandinavian Cherry
Appearance and taste
There are many species of rhubarb which, technically, is a vegetable rather than a fruit. In Scandinavia we grow only one species, Rheum rhabarbarum, of which there are many fine varieties with intensely colored stalks.
The first stalks to appear are particularly treasured and are prepared as if they were solid gold, with great care to keep their delicacy and aroma, and, just as important, their shape. They remain in perfect condition until the first strawberries arrive, and the two together are a match made in heaven. Then the rhubarb is left to grow, and picked again from August onwards for jams, chutneys and cordial.
Related: Scandinavian Pear
Rhubarb has a reputation for being potentially dangerous, and it does have a high content of both malic and oxalic acids. If you eat it every day, it’s probably not good for your teeth, but nobody does. The acid can be counteracted by eating the rhubarb with generous blob of something white, fatty and milky, which you probably would anyway, because the texture and taste of rhubarb marry so wonderfully with cream, yoghurt, ice cream or crème fraiche. The more intensely colored varieties have a high content of anthocyan, a coloring which is an important part of the plant’s immune system, and thereby also the immune system of people eating it.
The arrival of rhubarb is a great gift in spring, and fills the gap before the first gooseberries and strawberries. Rhubarb has much of the same charm as gooseberries, and can be used in the same recipes. Very young, red rhubarb can be made into a delicious and very pretty fresh relish for fried fish, chicken, pork and frikadeller if treated exactly as for the cucumber salad.
The juiciness of rhubarb varies according to its age: young rhubarb will spill a lot of juice, older, not so much. And some varieties are fare sourer than others, so when cooking with rhubarb be prepared to adjust the sugar accordingly.
Rhubarb compote is such a beautiful thing: firm, translucent and silky sticks in syrup of the loveliest pink, and a far cry from the pink-green sludge that it can be if not cooked with care. A delicious, well-made compote is at the heart of many great rhubarb dishes. Eat it hot or cold, plain with cream or ice cream, and/or with sponge cake. Excess syrup tastes wonderful as a cordial.
The secret of beautiful rhubarb compote lies in the method. Cooking it to perfection in a pan is difficult, while in the oven it’s easy as pie: the rhubarb is not stirred, and the oven simply melts the fruit in whole pieces, in a sugary syrup until it’s tender. Another secret – the lower, very pale part of the stalk is the best -just cut it a little thinner. And do not bother to strip off the outer layers of the older, woodier stalks: just cut the stalks in fine slices.
Rhubarb and sugar are the only basic ingredients required, but you can choose to spice it up with one of the flavorings suggested below.
500g rhubarb, cut into 5cm pieces
One of the following (optional) 5cm piece of angelica, 3-4 rose geranium leaves, 3cm piece of fresh ginger, sliced 1 cinnamon stick, 1 stem of sweet grass, 1 small bunch of woodruff, or 1 split vanilla pod.
Mix the rhubarb, sugar and spicing of your choice (if using) in an ovenproof dish. Cover with foil and bake at 180C/gas mark 4 for approximately 25 minutes. Test the fruit after 10 minutes and turn it over very gently. When the fruit is cooked, test the sweetness. If you need to add more sugar, do not add it directly to the rhubarb. Gently pour off the syrup into a pan, then add the extra sugar and bring to the boil. Allow the syrup to cool, then pour it back over the rhubarb.
By adapting the above recipe slightly, you can make a compote that is a wonderful spring accompaniment for fried fish, chicken, pigeon or pork. It is made as above, but using only 150g sugar, and adding 3 tablespoons cider vinegar. You can spice it up with a little chili if you wish.
Scandinavian Rhubarb, written by Tor Kjolberg