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lucy waverman
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Rhubarb is a versatile ingredient and adds intensity to both sweet and savoury dishes.Handout

In this time of constant cooking, I get excited when a new ingredient arrives. Now, I am enthralled with pink hothouse rhubarb. Its sweet/sour taste adds such intensity to both sweet and savoury dishes.

To prepare it, discard the leaves – they are poisonous – and trim the stalk. The slimmer stalks are usually more tender; the big ones can be a little stringy, so cut those in half before chopping. As many of us are having our ingredients delivered, we do not have the luxury of choosing the right stalks, but in the end they all work.

As a savoury ingredient, rhubarb is versatile. If you make a beef or chicken stew, add some Middle Eastern spices such as cumin, turmeric, coriander or sumac, then add 2 cups of chopped rhubarb halfway through cooking. The rhubarb disintegrates in the liquid, but leaves a brightness that everyone loves. It makes a fine chutney, too.

When it comes to baking, instead of pie, try bread. The rise in quarantine bread baking means yeast can be hard to find, but this quick, easy and satisfying recipe is yeast-free and can be whipped up in under an hour.

Rhubarb and Ginger Soda Bread

Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine 1 cup chopped rhubarb with 2 tbsp sugar and 1 or more tbsp grated ginger. Set aside. Combine 2 ¼ cups flour with 1 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp kosher salt. Stir in the rhubarb mixture. Make a well in the centre and pour in about ¾ cup of buttermilk. Stir together with your hands but treat it gently. If the mixture is too dry, add another ¼ cup buttermilk. The mixture should be shaggy and slightly damp.

Turn mixture on to a floured board. Knead gently for a few turns. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper, flour well. Add the dough and gently push it to fit the pan. Flour the top lightly and cut a line down the centre. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in pan then turn out. It is at its best warm, toasted with lashings of butter, grilled, or fried with eggs.

For any rhubarb that you have leftover, combine 2 or 3 cups of rhubarb with ½ cup sugar, ½ cup red wine vinegar, ½ cup cranberry, pomegranate or orange juice, 2-inch piece orange peel, ½ tsp Kosher salt and a good pinch of cayenne if you want it spicy. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes or until rhubarb breaks down. Puree or mash with a fork and serve with ricotta, on a cheese board, on toast, or as a relish.

Some notes on the bread: If you do not like ginger, substitute cardamom, or simply omit it. I prefer freshly grated ginger, but you can use 1 to 2 tsp ground ginger. The recipe calls for one cup of buttermilk, but there are lots of substitutes. Make your own by adding ½ tsp lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup milk; stir and leave for 10 minutes to sour. Plain yogurt is another good substitute, as is ½ cup Greek yogurt thinned to one cup with milk.

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