Spring is rhubarb season – and while this vibrant vegetable is most often used in desserts, it has plenty more potential. Go beyond crumble with these gorgeous recipes.
With just under a month before we officially hit British springtime and a roadmap to the end of lockdown in sight, we can’t help but feel decidedly more hopeful about the coming months. Another cause for cheer – albeit it a rather modest one – is that we’re now in rhubarb season.
Unlike most of the Stylist office, rhubarb thrives in the winter: the beautiful pink stalks are grown in sheds from December through to early spring, while the first field-grown plants show up later in March. It can then be left to its own devices until the season falls away in summer.
We tend to treat rhubarb as a fruit, because its sharp tang makes it brilliant company in sweet desserts like pie, compotes and crumbles. But it’s actually a hardy perennial vegetable in disguise. In 1947, a New York customs court ruling even defined rhubarb as fruit in the eyes of the US legal system, a classification that’s still used by the US Department of Agriculture today.
But only using rhubarb in desserts means missing out on the complex flavour it can bring to savoury dishes. Fact: it can have major chemistry with fresh salads, lend bite to salsa and chutney, and even add a vibrant tang to hot stews.
Below, you’ll find five delicious recipes to help you make the most of rhubarb’s potential. Start with Gill Meller’s apple, rhubarb and beetroot salad, a fresh, palate-cleansing mix that works brilliantly as a light lunch.
For a main course, try Mark Diacono’s Iranian-inspired rhubarb khoresh with cauliflower and yoghurt, which uses the sharp acidity of rhubarb to balance the richness of the dish.
If you like rhubarb in desserts, you’ll love Claire Thomson’s custard cake, which remixes the classic crumble combination into a fruity batter. Roxy Pope and Ben Pook’s vegan frangipane galette with shards of vibrant pink rhubarb, meanwhile, is a real treat for your springtime table.
Finally, Meller’s painterly rhubarb and ginger upside-down cake elevates the retro favourite to Instagram-ready levels of beauty. Just make sure you take a photo before the whole thing disappears…
Gill Meller’s apple, rhubarb and beetroot salad
Gill says: “You can serve this lovely, crunchy apple salad just as it is, as a light lunch. It’s fresh and clean, packed with goodness, and will see you right into the evening.
“Alternatively, you can serve it alongside some other seasonal delights. It would go beautifully with roast venison, or some smoked wild duck. You could embellish it with fresh goat’s cheese and walnuts or serve it as a salad course, after something rich like a stew or some fatty pork chops.
“If you can manage to slice neat, whole rounds off each beetroot, then this is good, but if they come off in half-moons and a mismatch of shavings, that is fine, too. It can pay to nick a section off the base of each beetroot, so it sits down nice and steady on the board as you slice.”
- 2–3 raw beetroot (about 250–375g), peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1–2 crisp apples (such as cox, spartan or russet), quartered, cored and thinly sliced lengthways
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- 1–2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 long or 2 shorter snappy rhubarb sticks, trimmed and sliced into 2mm rounds
- about 1 tbsp runny honey
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the beetroot slices in a large bowl. Scatter the apple pieces over the beetroot. Spoon over half the vinegar, trickle over half the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the lightly dressed beetroot and apple in a serving dish. Scatter over the sliced rhubarb, spoon over the remaining vinegar and olive oil, and season with a bit more salt and pepper.
Trickle everything generously with honey and bring to the table.
It won’t hurt leaving this salad to sit for an hour or so at room temperature. It gives everything a chance to settle and develop.
From Root Stem Leaf Flower by Gill Meller (£27, Quadrille), out now
Mark Diacono’s rhubarb khoresh with cauliflower and yoghurt
Mark says: “I do like an Iranian stew. Often, it is simplicity that makes them so very good: the few ingredients all leave their impression rather than getting lost in a more complex festival of flavours. All you have to do is take time to do the few things well – don’t rush the onion, don’t cook the rhubarb too long: let the gently sour pomegranate molasses and rhubarb sing.
“By all means, eat this with rice or flatbreads instead of cauliflower if you prefer. And if there’s any left over, it makes a fine breakfast, on toast.”
- 6 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 600g diced lamb shoulder
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ nutmeg, freshly grated
- 50ml pomegranate molasses
- 400ml water or chicken stock
- 3 sticks of rhubarb, sliced on the angle
- 1 tbsp honey (or brown sugar)
- 1 cauliflower, cut into chunks
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 sprigs of fresh mint, leaves only, thinly sliced
- Aleppo pepper (optional)
Fry the onion in 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy-based pan or casserole over a low-medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally – this may take 20–25 minutes so make a cup of tea.
Season the lamb with salt and pepper, then add to the onions with the spices and cook for 5 minutes, stirring to coat the meat in the spices.
Add the pomegranate molasses and the water or stock. Bring to a bare simmer and cook, uncovered, over a low heat for about 1½ hours until the meat is completely tender and the sauce is thick. If it threatens to dry out add a splash of water and cover.
Add 2/3 of the rhubarb and cook for 15 minutes – leave uncovered if the sauce seems too thin, adding a splash of water if it’s too thick.
While the lamb is cooking, poach the remaining rhubarb in just enough water that it’s almost covered, and the honey for around 4 minutes - until just tender.
Check the seasoning of the meat, adding more salt, pepper or pomegranate molasses to taste. Take off the heat.
Whizz the cauliflower in a food processor just until it becomes rubble.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat, spoon the cauliflower into the pan and season generously. Stir the cauliflower regularly – you want it to cook quickly but not stick. It should be done in 5–6 minutes.
Spoon the cauli into bowls, top with the khoresh and a generous spot or two of yoghurt. Sprinkle the whole with the poached rhubarb, mint leaves and a little Aleppo pepper if you fancy.
From Sour by Mark Diacono (£25, Quadrille), out now
Claire Thomson’s rhubarb and custard cake
Claire says: “Rhubarb and custard makes an all-time classic match. Fruity, vivid rhubarb goes beautifully with sweet, creamy custard. This recipe uses custard in lieu of yoghurt. I have made many different yoghurt cakes over the years, and, as cake preparations go, they have been some of the easiest – simply wet ingredients into dry.
“Shop-bought custard (I won’t hear a word against it… the best illicit spoonful, fridge-cold, there ever was) gives this cake a crumb that is both moist and wonderfully custardy. Try to cut the rhubarb super thin while still keeping the form and arrange these in a casual lattice pattern. Feel free to serve the cake with another spoonful of custard on the side.”
- 200g caster sugar, plus 1 tbsp more to sprinkle
- 2 eggs
- 100g self-raising flour, sifted
- 1 tsp baking powder, sifted into the flour
- 150g ground almonds
- pinch of salt
- 250g fresh custard
- 150g rhubarb (about 1 stalk), thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C fan/Gas Mark 3.
Line a 23cm cake tin with baking paper.
Using an electric mixer, whisk together the sugar and eggs for 4–5 minutes, until thick and pale. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder, with the ground almonds and the salt.
Using a spoon, fold 175g of the custard into the egg and sugar mixture. Then, fold in the combined dry ingredients and gently mix until fully incorporated.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin, then drizzle over the remaining custard and arrange the rhubarb and a dusting of sugar over the top. Bake for 40–45 minutes, until the cake is firm and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
If the cake is browning too much, cover with a loose square of foil for the final 15 minutes. Cool the cake on a wire rack before removing from the tin.
From Home Cookery Year by Claire Thomson (£30, Quadrille), out now
Roxy Pope and Ben Pook's rhubarb and frangipane galette
Roxy and Ben say: “This galette has so much rustic charm it’s unreal. The vibrant pink rhubarb, the sweet frangipane and the homemade flaky pastry. Serve with vegan custard for a complete treat.”
- 230g plain flour, plus 2 tbsp, plus extra for dusting
- 40g light brown sugar, plus 6 tbsp
- 150g vegan margarine, plus 2 tbsp
- 50g ground almonds
- ¼ almond extract
- 2 tbsp aquafaba
- 400g fresh rhubarb
- ½ a lemon
- a handful of almond flakes
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/gas 6.
Put the flour, 40g of light brown sugar and a pinch of salt into a mixing bowl. Stir, then rub in 150g of margarine with your fingers until it reaches a crumb-like consistency. If necessary, add 1–2 teaspoons of water so the dough comes together and forms a ball.
Wrap the dough in baking paper and pop it into the fridge.
For the frangipane, put the ground almonds into a small mixing bowl along with the almond extract, aquafaba, 2 tablespoons of margarine, 2 tablespoons of light brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir until fully combined.
Cut the rhubarb into 5–7cm-long pieces (note: if you want to create a pattern you may need to cut the rhubarb at an angle so that the pieces slot together).
Pop the pieces of rhubarb into another mixing bowl, along with 3 tablespoons of light brown sugar and the zest of the half lemon. Toss to combine.
Transfer the dough to the centre of a large sheet of baking paper. Dust a rolling pin and roll the dough into a circle approximately 30cm wide and ½cm thick. Then transfer the dough, still on the baking paper, to a large baking tray.
Put the frangipane in the middle of the dough and spread it out into a circle about 25cm wide, leaving 2.5cm clear around the edge. Next, arrange the rhubarb pieces on top of the frangipane.
Fold the edges of the pastry over the rhubarb and sprinkle the edges with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Scatter over a handful of almond flakes.
Bake the galette for 30–40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Cover with another tray or loosely with foil after 25 minutes if the almonds are starting to catch.
Remove the galette from the oven. Don’t worry if it looks wobbly at this stage, the frangipane will settle as it cools. Leave for 15–20 minutes, until the tart is firm enough to cut.
From One Pot Vegan by Roxy Pope and Ben Pook (£16.99, Michael Joseph), out now
Gill Meller’s wholemeal rhubarb and ginger upside-down cake
Gill says: “This is a proper ‘pudding cake’ to serve warm from the oven with hot, thick vanilla custard or cold double cream. The ginger (I like to use stem ginger in syrup) adds spice to the cake and complements the rhubarb in the most wonderful way.
“You can lay the rhubarb into the cake tin in neat rows like I have here – it’s kind of fun, in a fiddly way – or you can simply chop it up into bits and let it fall however it likes. Totally up to you.”
- 200g unrefined caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling and to finish
- 6–8 rhubarb stalks
- 175g unsalted butter, softened and cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing
- 175g self-raising wholemeal flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ tsp baking powder
- pinch of fine sea salt
- 3 eggs
- 3 small pieces of stem ginger preserved in syrup, chopped
- 1 tbsp ginger syrup (from the stem ginger jar)
Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4.
Cut a circle of baking parchment to fit the base of a 23cm springform cake tin. Remove the lined base from the ring of the tin and sprinkle over a little caster sugar. Then, lay the rhubarb stalks over the base side by side, using a sharp knife to trim the edges so you’re left with a nice disc of stalks that covers the base.
Grease the ring of the cake tin with butter and dust with flour, then pop the base (complete with rhubarb in place) into the ring and secure with the clip.
Sift the flour together with the baking powder and salt into a bowl.
In a large mixing bowl, using either a wooden spoon or a hand-held electric whisk, beat the butter and 200g sugar together until light and fluffy. (Alternatively, you can do this in a stand mixer.)
Beat in the eggs one at a time, sprinkling in 1 heaped teaspoon of flour mixture with each addition of egg.
Using a large spoon, fold in the remaining flour mixture and the chopped stem ginger and syrup, until fully combined and no streaks of flour remain. Spoon the mixture carefully over the rhubarb in the tin, spreading it out lightly and evenly with the back of the spoon.
Place the cake in the middle of the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 5–10 minutes, then turn out onto a serving plate, so that the rhubarb is on the top.
Sprinkle with a little extra caster sugar and serve warm or cold, cut into thick slices.
From Root Stem Leaf Flower by Gill Meller (£27, Quadrille), out now
Photography: © Andrew Montgomery; © Mark Diacono; © Sam Folan; Dan Jones
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.