Much like most of us have wanted to for the last week, new season rhubarb has been spending the winter hibernating in the dark, as growers traditionally only harvest by candlelight. It’s a truly ancient plant, and one of the few UK grown vegetables to be given Protected Designation of Origin status.
All this mythology plays into a chef’s excitement for the first crop, and it’s not uncommon to find a sudden flurry of rhubarb based puddings on menus (and instagram pages) across the country.
It’s not just a pretty face though; forced rhubarb is known for having high levels of antioxidants, perfectly timed for the usual resolutions January entails. And, happily, the flavour of rhubarb is like nothing else. If you are not yet convinced, now is the best time to experiment with the pretty pink vegetable, as the flavour is less acidic than the second wave of outdoor-grown rhubarb coming later in the season.
It’s usual to find rhubarb in sweet dishes; it pairs wonderfully with creamy, dairy based puddings, and of course the nutty crunch of a crumble is one of the simplest comforts you could ask for in winter. But rhubarb shines just as brightly in a savoury salad, and accompanies oily fish (mackerel) or rich meats (pork, duck) really well. The light acidity cuts through the fat and brings a welcome tang. Eaten cold, it takes on a refreshing quality, and a little bit of bite opens up new textures. If you find the rhubarb too acidic, add more sugar when roasting to help mellow the flavour.
Rhubarb & Pearl Barley Salad
150g pearl barley
5 stems of rhubarb, chopped into inch long pieces.
3 tbsp caster sugar
Generous handful of walnuts
1 bulb of fennel, sliced very thinly.
Pre-heat the oven to 180’C
Mix together the zest and juice of an orange, a good glug of olive oil, the sugar and some fresh black pepper. Pour this over the rhubarb, and mix it to ensure all the rhubarb is well coated.
Place the rhubarb in a single layer in a baking tray or oven dish, and roast in the hot oven until it’s just tender when pricked with a fork. This should take about 10-20 minutes.
Leave the rhubarb to cool in the dish, without moving it. This should stop it turning overly soft, and losing it’s texture.
While the rhubarb is cooling, rinse the pearly barley until the water runs clear. Then place it in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and and simmer gently until tender, about 20 minutes.
Once cooked, drain in a colander and set aside.
In a dry pan, toast the walnuts for a few minutes over a high heat, tossing every now and then to prevent them burning.
In a large bowl toss together the salad leaves, sliced fennel and pearl barley. Pour over the juices from the rhubarb tray, and add a little more olive oil to make a dressing. Add the rhubarb and toss gently once more, along with a sprinkling of sea salt.
Top with the toasted walnuts, crushing them gently as you add them to the salad.