Cooking with rhubarb is still something of a novelty for me. I’ve spent much of my life living in hot countries like Hong Kong and South Africa, where delicious fruits and vegetables were always abundant, but sadly rhubarb was never one of them. Over the last couple years I’ve grown to know this peculiar vegetable, and after a few false starts, we are now the firmest of friends. There is something quintessentially English about it, enjoyed on a spring day in the garden while soaking up the first of the year’s sunshine.
The forced variety of rhubarb, sometimes called champagne rhubarb, starts to appear quite early in the year. These stems are grown in the dark and are picked by candlelight, as its less intense than electric or daylight. By mid spring, field or garden rhubarb is readily available. These stems are less sweet and tender, requiring longer cooking and more sugar.
Last week I visited The Pythouse Kitchen Garden near Tisbury in Wiltshire, and finished a delicious lunch with a pot of home grown rhubarb mess. It was a revelation, and I rushed home to make it myself. Eton Mess is a a decadent jumble of meringue, cream and fruit. A recipe for a (messy) success. Traditionally Eton boys chomped it down with strawberries, but rhubarb makes a very happy substitute to the age old classic.
For the poached rhubarb:
Juice and grated zest of 2 oranges
1 tbsp muscovado sugar
3-4 rhubarb stems
2cm piece of ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
2 star anise
For the Meringue
3 large, organic egg whites
175g white caster sugar
For the cream
300ml double cream
Toasted flaked almonds
Start by making the meringues. Preheat the oven to 140C/gas mark 1. In a large, grease-free mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the sugar, 1 tbsp at a time. Carry on whisking until you have a stiff, glossy meringue mixture.
Line a baking tray with grease-proof paper, holding it in place with a small blob of meringue in each corner. Using a metal spoon, dollop 6 blobs of meringue onto the baking sheet, leaving enough space between them to expand slightly. Bake for 1 ½ hours, at which point turn off the oven and leave the meringues inside until they’ve cooled completely.
To poach the rhubarb, preheat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5. Gently heat the orange juice in a saucepan and melt the muscovado sugar. Add the star anise.
Cut the rhubarb stems into thumb-sized chunks and lay them, barely touching, in a shallow oven proof dish. Pour over the warm orange juice and scatter over the zest and ginger. Cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 10 – 15 minutes. The rhubarb should be soft, but still keep its shape. Allow the rhubarb to cool.
Whip the cream in a large mixing bowl, until it resembles soft peaks. Be careful not to over whisk otherwise it will turn into butter.
Crumble the meringue into large serving bowl, dollop over the cream, followed by the poached rhubarb – the messier the better in my opinion! Scatter with toasted flaked almonds if you wish. (I had some blackberries to hand and couldn’t resist scattering a few on top as well).