When Bill French needs a blast of spring, he just opens his barn door.
Inside, thousands of lipstick-pink stalks of rhubarb with lemon-lime leaves vie for attention. Pick me! Pick me!
Grown without sunlight, these elegant stalks are tender, fibre-free and sweeter than their outdoor cousins, though still tart. And they’re at their peak for the next month.
French, owner of Lennox Farm north of Shelburne, Ont., is a fourth-generation rhubarb grower and one of the few left in Canada producing forced rhubarb.
His family emigrated to Ontario in the mid-1800s from England, where forced rhubarb remains popular.
In late October or early November, French digs up clumps of two-year-old roots, each weighing about 60 pounds, from his outdoor rhubarb field and “plants” them in one of three barns to slumber awhile longer in the cold and dark.
Around Christmas, he turns on the fans in the first 3,200-square-foot barn to circulate warm air and fool the roots into thinking it’s spring, time to send up new shoots. Five weeks later the long tender stalks are ready to eat.
“We find sales are steady in February and March,” says French, “then demand goes up in April when the days get nicer.”
French’s third barn will be ready to harvest any day now. With a crew of four, including his son and partner Brian, he can pick 1,000 pounds in seven hours.
Each shiny stalk is twisted and pulled from the muddy floor by hand, then cradled in one arm until they form a 10-pound bundle, enough for one carton.
If the weather stays warm, French says he may not get a fourth crop in before mid-May, when his outdoor crop starts. The spent indoor roots become compost, and the heating costs and back-breaking labour involved make this one expensive crop.
But what a fresh, luxurious, local way to welcome spring.
Buy and store:
- Look for forced rhubarb in some supermarkets and smaller independents. I found it at Foodland on Pape, Fiesta Farms and St. Lawrence Market priced from $5 to $7 a pound.
- Choose firm, straight stalks.
- Thick or thin, stalks are all tender.
- Discard rhubarb leaves, as its oxalic acid may harm people and pets.
- Store stalks in plastic in the crisper up to a week.
- Wash just before using. French doesn’t use pesticides.
- Rhubarb freezes beautifully. Chop and pack in a plastic bag or airtight container.
- Trim ends, removing leaves, and wash briefly to remove any sand.
- When using recipes for summer rhubarb, cut the sugar by half or two-thirds.
- Chopped forced rhubarb cooks into beautiful bright pink sauce in less than 10 minutes.
- Sweeten with sugar, maple syrup or honey to taste, along with a splash of vanilla, orange juice, ginger or lemon liqueur. Sauce will thicken as it cools.
- Roast: Cut stalks into 2-inch (5 cm) pieces, toss with sugar in a shallow baking pan and roast in a single layer at 350 F (180 C) for 10 minutes or until rhubarb is tender but holds its shape.
- Use forced rhubarb in any summer rhubarb recipe, from muffins to pies, cakes to crisps.
- For April Fool’s Day, swirl cooked rhubarb into whipped cream to make a rhubarb fool.
- Serve rhubarb chutney with meat or spread on grilled cheese sandwiches.
- For a hit of spring, spoon rhubarb sauce over Greek yogurt, ice cream or granola.
- Poach with strawberries in orange juice for a chilled spring soup.
This rich frozen custard flecked with roasted rhubarb can be prepared up to a week in advance and is guaranteed to impress. Add more sugar to taste if using summer rhubarb.
4 cups (400 g) fresh forced rhubarb, trimmed and sliced ¼-inch (.5 cm) thick
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
4 thin slices unpeeled fresh ginger
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups 35% cream
Line bottom and sides of a 9 × 5-inch loaf pan with two pieces of plastic wrap, leaving at least 2 inches hanging over sides.
Preheat oven to 350 F . Place sliced rhubarb in a shallow baking dish and toss with ¼ cup sugar, 1 tbsp water and ginger slices. Roast 10 minutes, or just until tender. Refrigerate until cold. Remove ginger before using.
In large heatproof bowl, whisk egg yolks with remaining sugar, milk and vanilla. Place bowl over a large saucepan of simmering water. Whisk constantly about 6 minutes or until custard turns pale yellow, doubles in volume and is thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove from heat, let cool and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
To assemble, beat cream in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high until stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. Stir a quarter of the cream into chilled custard. Fold in remaining cream until no white streaks remain. Stir in chilled rhubarb and swirl evenly through custard. Pour into prepared pan and cover surface with plastic overhang. Freeze until firm, 4 hours or overnight.
To serve, invert semifreddo onto a serving platter and discard plastic wrap. Let stand about 5 minutes until soft enough to slice.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.