Feature

Rhubarb: Much more than a seasonal pie filler

The pleasing sourness of this early-spring perennial is underused in the kitchen.

Rhubarb is often thought of as just a pie ingredient, but “I like to think there is a little more to it than that,” said Nigel Slater in Ripe (Ten Speed Press). To me, the pleasing sourness of this early-spring perennial is underused in the kitchen. It can be “a razor-sharp accompaniment” to rich, fatty meats or fish.

The rhubarb plant is native to China, and its stalks have been used medicinally since 2700 B.C. But it was not until 18th-century Londoners took a chance on those vibrant red stalks that their culinary potential was unleashed. They were soon widely used for winemaking and in such desserts as rhubarb crumble, now an English staple. 

It’s understandable that rhubarb seems “most comfortable” in cakes and pies. Its piercing flavor offers a nice contrast to the buttery notes of cake batters and piecrusts. But think of the way a tart applesauce nicely offsets the fattiness of a pork chop and you can imagine how rhubarb might do the same. Rhubarb can be added to lamb stews or served beside game birds; it can provide a change of pace from cranberry sauce with turkey or ham.

Rhubarb also brings out “the inherent sweetness” of mackerel. You can puree the rhubarb, but I prefer the stalks served nearly whole, for both texture and appearance. “The color, alongside the shimmering silver of the mackerel, makes for a beautiful and extraordinary supper.”

Recipe of the week
Mackerel with rhubarb and sherry vinegar

  • 7 oz rhubarb 
  • 2 tbsp superfine sugar 
  • A little all-purpose flour
  • 2 filleted mackerel 
  • Olive oil
  • Small sprig of rosemary 
  • Sherry vinegar
  • 1 tbsp capers (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Trim rhubarb and discard leaves (they’re toxic). Cut stalks into short lengths and put in roasting pan or baking dish with sugar. Bake until just soft enough to take point of a knife, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then drain, reserving cooking juices.

Season the flour with salt and a little black pepper. Lightly coat the skin side of each mackerel fillet with seasoned flour. Heat a little oil in a large, nonstick frying pan. Gently place mackerel fillets in the hot pan, skin side down.

Chop rosemary needles and scatter over fish. Press fish down with a thin spatula to keep it from curling. As the underside of the fish starts to crisp lightly, carefully turn the fillets over and cook the other side. It shouldn’t take longer than two or three minutes on each side. Lift mackerel fillets out onto warm plates.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of sherry vinegar (or less, to taste) into the hot pan. Add cooked rhubarb, together with rhubarb juices. Add capers if using them. Let rhubarb briefly warm through and spoon over plated mackerel. Serves 2.

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