Forced rhubarb is a glorious thing – gloriously pink and also, when you think about it, gloriously odd. Grown in the depths of winter, in darkened sheds, it is (traditionally, at least) harvested by candlelight to ensure its nail-polish pinkness remains untainted by chlorophyl green.
The way we use it is equally curious. It’s really a vegetable, but we usually treat it like fruit, no doubt because it comes at a time of year when, historically, fresh fruit was rather thin on the ground. Its mouth-puckering sharpness, tempered with sugar, most often finds its way into puddings – crumbles, fools, jellies, a few scarlet sticks tumbled around a quaking panna cotta, perhaps jam. But it does also lend itself to savoury partnerships. Although, to my mind, it is rather an extravagance to turn forced rhubarb into chutney, I do occasionally pickle a few stems in sweet vinegar to serve alongside charcuterie, pork and duck. Rhubarb works exceptionally well with fatty meats – fulfilling much the same role as apple sauce or quince – and in Iran, it is a common component of the lamb stew known as “khoresh”.
One of the more traditional British uses is as a sauce for mackerel, where it provides a counterpoint to the fatty richness, and it is well worth trying with other oily fish, too. The recipe below pairs it with salmon and the liquorice notes of anise, which is a happy partner to both the fish and the rhubarb. It’s a sweetish sauce, but with enough residual tartness to stop it tipping over into pudding.
400g forced rhubarb
4cm length fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (to give about 1 ½ – 2 tsp ginger puree)
2 tsp Chinese five spice powder
5 tbsp caster sugar
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 skin-on salmon fillets
4 small handfuls watercress
Put the sugar, ginger and Chinese five spice in a saucepan. Add the rhubarb and 175g water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has the consistency of a thick compote. Season with salt – you’ll need at least ¼ tsp – and a few good grinds of pepper. Put to one side somewhere warm while you cook the salmon.
Wipe the salmon skin with kitchen towel – you want it as dry as possible – then season the fillets well on both sides. Heat a large, non-stick frying pan and, when it’s hot, add 2 tbsp oil. Add the salmon fillets, skin-down and press gently, so the skin is in contact with the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and leave to cook for 4 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and a delicate gold. Carefully flip over and cook for 1-2 minutes more, until the fish is cooked, but still blushing pink in the middle. Thicker fillets may need a little longer.
Put a puddle of the rhubarb jam in the middle of 4 plates and top with the salmon fillets. Add a flourish of watercress and trickle with a little more olive oil. Grind over a touch more pepper if you want.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book is Good Things to Eat.