Rhubarb grew in our garden in Oranjemund, a place where you grow interesting things to deflect your mind from the numbing blandness all around you.
I saw some in a supermarket recently and its alluring red stems played their trick on me. I popped some in the basket as memories of our vegetable garden sandwiched between the mouth of the great Orange River and the lower reaches of the Namib desert jumbled in my head.
There were great cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower growing in the central beds, beans climbing on stalks, and over against the fence, a quartet of brussels sprouts plants standing taller than my dad. I used to pluck them off one by one and pop them in a brown bag to take inside for my mom to cook for supper.
And I have never understood the loathing most people have for this lovely vegetable. The only thing you need to change, apart from your attitude to them, is the cooking method: never, ever, boil a brussels sprout. They need steaming until al dente, then blanching and draining, anf finally tossing in olive oil with basic seasonings. Simple as that, and marvellous.
But back to rhubarb. We think of it – I certainly do – as a fruit, really, and as dessert, hence the recipe for a rhubarb crumble to follow shortly. But, just as avocados and tomatoes are really fruit, rhubarb is really a vegetable, like the other vegetable which it resembles, though only in appearance – celery. However, don’t presume that, like celery, the rest of the plant (like the fennel bulb) is also edible. Rhubarb leaves are toxic.
And you can treat rhubarb (stems, Daisy) as a vegetable in the kitchen, because that spiky, tart flavour takes very well to savoury seasonings. Enhanced with seed spices such as crushed or powdered fennel and or cumin and or cinnamon, slightly sweetened and given a touch of alcohol (a splash of liqueur, say), it makes a good match for roast duck Add a splash of orange juice and a grinding of zest if you like. But do cut rhubarb into short chunks, whatever you do, because those long, stringy stems are not fun to eat if left whole.
For a quick, easy rhubarb crumble, you need about 20 sticks of rhubarb to make a tart to serve four to six normal people or six to eight members of the ‘I eat like a bird’ tribe. If you don’t have enough rhubarb for your needs, add a second fruit such as apple or pear. In both instances, the taste of the rhubarb will dominate.
Wash the rhubarb sticks under cold water, snip off each end of the stems, cut into 6cm strips (you don’t need to measure, Daisy – 5cm or 8cm will do just as well) and lay in an oven pan (the rhubarb, Daisy). Sprinkle liberally with caster sugar (about 6 to 8 Tbs) according to your own taste – I’d rather use less, about 4 Tbs, but most people seem to prefer a sweeter dessert than I do. Sprinkle over a little cold water and bake in a 180° oven for 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven. Grate about an inch of peeled fresh ginger and about half that amount of fresh turmeric if you have some to hand, which you probably won’t. Don’t panic, Daisy, ginger will suffice – I just happened to have some to hand and it makes an interesting addition to rhubarb. I found the turmeric at the weekly Earth Fair Thursday morning food market in St George’s Mall in Cape Town.
Recently it was rumoured (incorrectly, apparently) that this mall was to be renamed after some or other historical Khoi figure who, while he or she may deserve a street named after them somewhere else, surely should not be first in line for this particular street.
If we are going to rename St George’s Mall, isn’t there a clue at the top end of the street as to whom it should really be named in honour of: struggle icon, global hero, Nobel Peace Prize winner. I’d much sooner stroll along Desmond Tutu Mall than one named after some unpronounceable person nobody remembers.
Anyway, you’ve removed the rhubarb from the oven, grated your ginger and turmeric, now sprinkle this over the rhubarb, give it a good stir, and ladle it into a greased oven dish.
To make the crumble, rub together 120g each of softened butter and demarara sugar (soft brown, Daisy) and 200g plain flour, then roughly chop about 100g pecans and rub this into the mix. Sprinkle this over the top of the rhubarb, without pressing it down. Bake in a 180° oven for 40-50 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or custard and enjoy it in honour of a hero who deserves to see one of Cape Town’s main streets named after him in his lifetime, God love him. Here’s to the Arch.
First published in Weekend Argus August 2011