Rhubarb & Asparagus

Rhubarb is not something everyone likes. And we all know what happens when some people eat asparagus. These two somewhat difficult vegetables also share a season.

I cannot remember the first time I had rhubarb, but I was most certainly an adult. It was not on the radar when I was a child, at least in the place where I grew up. However, we seem to be in the midst of a rhubarb revival partly, I am guessing, due to farmbox schemes but also because everyone is growing their own. Rhubarb is said to be an easy thing to grow. I have not yet tried it, but it is on the list.

There is a sort of seriousness about rhubarb I wanted to dispel and in searching the internet for a good rhubarb joke (there are none, unless you think confusing manure and custard is funny) I stumbled across a trivia gem. “Rhubarb”, the word not the vegetable, is radio terminology for meaningless background noise, the idea being that a group of people all speaking indistinguishably can be imitated by simply repeating the word “rhubarb”. This notion formed the basis for a film, entitled Rhubarb, about a police inspector and a vicar playing a round of golf (a round described as unorthodox and dangerous), in which the only word spoken is rhubarb. The film was made by two members of the old British TV programme The Goon Show, where they made good use of the “rhubarb” device by occasionally shouting “custard”.

However, I digress. As it is rhubarb time, the pretty raffia-tied bundle I received last week was not the first of the crop. It’s been hanging around in the kitchen, and so have the rhubarb crumbles. Normally, this is not a problem but it is now time for a break from crumbles.

A Yorkshire-based food writer, specialising in all things British food, has written an entire book about rhubarb so I looked to her for inspiration. The idea of Eton Mess made with rhubarb in place of berries was especially appealing and, as there were a few non-farmbox raspberries (yes, bought from the supermarket), they were thrown in as well. Simply put, it was yum.

The other thing made from the abundance of rhubarb was a cheesecake, based on an idea in Peyton and Byrne’s British Baking book. Extraordinary quantities of cheesecake are consumed in my house so there is a need to devise new and exciting vehicles for this platform. The P&B recipe is a good one, very classic and reliable, though heavy on the cream cheese. The version here lightens it with mascarpone. Had some ginger biscuits been in the cupboard, they might have found their way into the crust alongside the digestives. Ginger and rhubarb are great partners.

Both of these recipes require a rhubarb compote and both offer different ways to achieve this: one is oven roasted, the other is made traditionally on top of the stove. Surprisingly, there was no huge difference in taste between the two, perhaps because rhubarb is such a strong ingredient in its own right.

It was nice to be reminded that rhubarb goes well with oranges, which were used for the oven-roasting, but you could just as easily stew the rhubarb with orange juice and brown sugar in a pot. More than anything, cooking seasonally requires an ability to use the same thing day in and day out, with a bit of flair, so it is useful to know about affinities. The message is: if in a rhubarb rut, think berries, oranges and ginger as well.

Baked Rhubarb Cheesecake

Crust
200 g biscuits, digestives or other plain biscuits
90 g unsalted butter, melted

For the compote
About 450 g rhubarb, cut into 2-3 cm pieces
4 tbsp sugar, plus more to taste

600 g cream cheese
250 g mascarpone
125 g caster sugar
3 large eggs

20 cm springform pan

Preheat the oven to 180ºC.

For the compote, combine the rhubarb and sugar in a pot, with a tbsp or so of water. Stir to blend, then simmer until tender, adding more water as necessary to keep it from sticking and burning, but not so much that it becomes thin and diluted. Cook until tender; taste and add more sugar as desired. (This would be a good place to improvise by adding some strawberries to the compote while cooking, or stir in some grated orange zest or chopped stem ginger at the end.) Set aside to cool slightly.

Crush the biscuits to a fine powder. The best way to do this is wrap securely in a clean tea towel, or a sturdy plastic bag, and bash them with a rolling pin. A good activity for a bad day.

Mix the crumbs with the melted butter, then press into the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Refrigerate while you prepare the rest.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, mascarpone, sugar and
eggs and beat until smooth.

Remove the prepared cake pan from the fridge and pour in the cream cheese mixture. Add spoonfuls of the rhubarb compote; I do a pattern of four large blobs on top, like a flower, then use the side of the spoon (or a table knife) to drag and swirl the rhubarb into the cream cheese so it sort of marbles. Mix well but try to keep the marbled effect so there is separation between the creamy white cheese part and the tart pink rhubarb.

Bake until browned and just set, 45-60 minutes. It should still have a bit of a wobble.

Set on a rack to cool and release the side, but leave until cool before removing completely. Best  at room temperature, never cold. Store in the refrigerator
as long as it seems safe to do so.

—–

Last week saw the first bundle of asparagus in the box. There are many ways to use this ingredient, but my preference is for simplicity. The season is short and the flavour is nice; why get bogged down with complicated recipes.

Cook asparagus simply and put it on a plate with very little else.

Steaming or boiling is how I learned to cook asparagus but, like so many vegetables once cooked in water, I now roast.  Will this get boring in a few weeks too? I hope not.

Oven Roasted Asparagus
The method is basic: toss lightly in a good quality oil, such as sunflower or rapeseed, sprinkle with salt and roast in a medium hot oven (180-190°C) until browned but not completely charred. Time depends entirely on quantity and size of stalks, so start checking after 15 minutes. Varying thickness of stalks will lead to varying degrees of doneness, which is fine. Just watch very very thin stalks do not burn before the fat ones cook; you may need to use two trays or work in batches. Serve as is, or perhaps add a squeeze of lemon juice and black pepper. A light grating of Parmesan is nice as well.

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