Each year I'm always surprised when the luscious parade of summer fruit comes to an end. I'll be happily munching my way through bowls of juicy plums and peaches and then suddenly - bang - they are over. Until summer rolls around again there's only frozen or bottled stonefruit to be had ... it just isn't quite the same.
Luckily the tart, juicy stalks of rhubarb offer a worthy interlude before the deluge of pears and apples descends. I often miss the spring flush of this hardy perennial, as all too quickly the plants go to seed. But from now until it dies down for the winter, there are plenty of fat, juicy rhubarb stalks to be harvested.
I pick the plants hard before they die back as the stalks freeze really well. Cut them into 2-3cm pieces and put them in a bag in the freezer - no blanching or preparation required. Rhubarb free-flows perfectly in the bags, ready for adding into crumbles, muffins, cake and pies.
The stalks are the only edible part of the rhubarb plant. The leaves are toxic — they contain an irritant called oxalic acid, so when you prepare the stalks be sure to remove any leaves (organic gardeners often make a bug spray with the leaves).
The Swedish au pairs we had living with us when our kids were little had a thing for raw rhubarb. They would carefully pull off the outer fibrous layers of the stalk and then eat them whole as a snack, dunking the ends into a bowl of sugar and then biting off big chunks. I will never forget the first time they gave a stalk of raw rhubarb to our daughter Rose when she was about 2 - her face scrunched up like a ball of paper in reaction to the sour taste, but she didn't cry.
Just last night at fabulous little Wānaka restaurant Muttonbird, I enjoyed a wonderful dessert of white chocolate semifreddo topped with the finest shred of raw crisp rhubarb matchsticks and frozen Bundaberg ice. The fine threads of raw rhubarb were the perfect offset to the richness of the semifreddo. In a way, the tartness of rhubarb is the whole point. You'll need to add a little sugar or honey when you cook it, but don't overdo it.
Vanilla panna cotta with baked rhubarb
You can make both elements ahead of time and put them together when you're ready. The process of macerating the fruit in sugar before you bake it is called disgorging. Pulling out some of the liquid like this ensures the rhubarb will hold its shape rather than go pulpy when it's cooked.
Ready in 50 minutes + chilling
¼ cup cold water
3 tsp gelatine
1 cup boiling water
½ cup caster sugar
2 cups cream
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean or 2 tsp vanilla extract
Mint leaves, to serve
6 stalks rhubarb
¼ cup sugar
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean
Zest of ½ an orange, finely grated
1 Tbsp orange juice
Combine cold water and gelatine in a small pot. Make sure you soak gelatine thoroughly and remove any lumps before you heat it, otherwise it clumps together.
Add boiling water and sugar to the pot and bring just to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as it is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool (about 10 minutes).
Whisk in cream and vanilla. Divide between 6 serving glasses or cup moulds. Cover and chill until set (at least 4 hours or overnight).
Panna cotta can be kept in the fridge for up to 2 days.
For the rhubarb, preheat oven to 150C fan bake.
Peel the rhubarb using a knife to pull off long strands of the fibrous outer layer. Cut stalks into short lengths and place an oven dish that will hold them in a single layer.
Add sugar, vanilla and orange zest and juice. Toss to coat then spread out in the dish and leave to stand for 30 minutes. The rhubarb will produce a lot of juice.
Cover the dish with tin foil or a lid and bake until tender (20 minutes). Leave to cool and then chill.
When ready to serve, spoon cooked rhubarb and juices on to each panna cotta and sprinkle with a few mint leaves.
Make these mini tarts all year round with in-season fruit. In summer use thinly sliced plums or apricots, and in winter go for a thinly sliced tangy apple. They travel well.
Ready in 1 hour
Makes 8 individual tarts
SWEET SOUR CREAM PASTRY
120g butter, chilled
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp high-grade flour
2 Tbsp sugar
½ cup sour cream
4-6 stalks rhubarb, sliced lengthways
½ cup sugar
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake and line an oven tray with baking paper.
To make the pastry, place the butter, flour and sugar in a food processor and whizz until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. If making by hand, cut butter into small cubes and use your fingertips to work into combined flour and sugar.
Add the sour cream and pulse or mix until the dough starts to come together into a ball. If it is still crumbly and does not bind, add a little cold water. Form mixture into a flattened disc shape, wrap in baking paper and chill for at least 20 minutes before using.
Divide the pastry into 8 equal pieces, form into balls and roll each out to a 14cm disc on a lightly floured board. If using sheets of pastry, roll out slightly then cut four rounds from each. Place on a prepared oven tray and fold the edges in by 1cm to form a rim.
Peel rhubarb stalks and cut to fit inside the pastry bases. Arrange pieces side by side inside the pastry ring.
Sprinkle each tart with 1 Tbsp sugar. Bake until crisp and golden (about 20 minutes) and serve warm. They can also be cooked in advance and reheated for 5 minutes at 180C.
Favourite breakfast fare, served with muesli and yoghurt.
Ready in 20 minutes
500g rhubarb stalks
¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
Trim off rhubarb bases and use a knife to pull off long strands of the fibrous outer layer. Chop stalks into 2cm lengths and place in a large pot with sugar and ½ cup water. Cover and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar, until rhubarb is tender but still firm (5-10 minutes), or until it breaks up easily if you prefer a more stewed consistency (10-15 minutes).
Enjoy warm or transfer to a container and chill for up to a week until needed. Can be frozen.
Match these with ...
by Yvonne Lorkin
(Vanilla panna cotta with baked rhubarb)
Liberty Brewing Raspberry Roller Milkshake Sour 440ml ($12)
The tangy rhubarb next to the wibbly wobbly wonder of vanilla panna cotta can be catapulted heavenwards with a hefty portion of this heartstoppingly delicious new brew. Clean raspberry flavours combine with a sour base and local milk lactose to create a tart start that morphs into a refreshing mid-palate followed by a mouthfillingly smooth, creamy dreamy finish.
Hāhā Rōhi Hawke's Bay Sparkling Rosé NV ($40 for 2)
Brand new and absolutely, hands-down, no-holds-barred, the best thing to sip while nibbling these acidulously awesome little pockets of piquant perfection, is this wine. Crafted by Ant Mackenzie from a mix of merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon and bottled with a new screwcap designed specifically for sparkling wine, you can now twist the cap back on after you've poured a glass and the fizz is kept crackly fresh. No more fiddly corks, cages, zorks or champagne stoppers. Bold, bursting with berry bagel and rich, biscuity notes, it's refreshingly vibrant yet cool in its own skin. Yum!
Blush Rhubarb Gin 700ml ($85)
Finding a drink to pair specifically with stewed rhubarb on the solo was a tad tricky. However, according to Annabel's instructions, it does take at least 20 minutes to cook and of course you're going to need to entertain yourself while you wait. So I recommend pouring a glug, a slug, a snifter or a splash of this ultra-smooth, vibrantly rhubarby gin over ice to sip while you ponder and stir. It's beautifully balanced, generously proportioned at 37.5 per cent alc and refreshing rather than sweet. If you prefer a mixer, try lemonade or gin-fizz it up with prosecco.