Doris tore around my garden last week, hell-bent on spoiling the first fragile signs of spring: she flattened the daffodils with her ferocious breath just as the buds were beginning to unfurl, and stamped on the purple crocuses that had popped up outside the window next to my desk. Thankfully, along with this howling harridan of a storm, nature also delivered rhubarb.
I'm growing this tantalising vegetable in the garden border - the crimson stalks look promising but they’re not quite ready to pick yet. Until they are, forced rhubarb will tide us over, the stuff magically 'forced' to grow in darkened sheds and under terracotta pots that has just appeared in greengrocers. For food lovers, this really is a glorious time - rhubarb brings a splash of colour to the dreary February kitchen, as well as mouthfuls of zing and vibrant flavour to palates jaded by endless brassicas.
It's a perfect ingredient for a time of year when the weather is erratic. Its cheery colour and tang works beautifully in upside down cakes, frangipane tarts, jams and comforting winter puddings like the one below. But it's also equally delicious in lighter, fresher food. For example, I have some golden beets in the crisper drawer as well as some spare rhubarb stalks, so I’m going to turn them into Yotam Ottolenghi’s vivid beetroot and rhubarb salad this week. I also love to pickle rhubarb – it's gorgeous as a mouth puckering side to oily fish like sardines (there's a recipe for grilled and soused sardines on toast with pickled rhubarb salad, pictured below, in my latest book, easy Easy Mediterranean).
I try to keep bowls of roast rhubarb in the fridge throughout the season for quick snacks and easy puddings. Unless you're making jam, don't boil rhubarb; its glorious colour turns to sludge and the flesh is easily reduced to mush. Roasting is best and the following method works for me: just toss chunks of rhubarb with caster sugar (20g of sugar per 100g rhubarb), place in a single layer in a roasting tray and roast for 15 minutes at 200°C, or until tender but still retaining its shape and colour. You can add a squeeze of citrus juice to the tray before cooking - lemon or blood orange is lovely - or maybe a cinnamon stick or some star anise. There's probably no more gorgeous breakfast in the summer than a bowl of chilled roast rhubarb served with a splodge of full-fat Greek yoghurt or labneh, and a handful of almonds or pistachios.
If you're still hankering after something decadent and comforting - and honestly, who isn't in this weather? - this pudding is the business. The tangy, acidic sharpness of rhubarb works a treat with the rich creamy notes of white chocolate, in the same way that rhubarb and custard is such a perfect pairing.
Rhubarb and white chocolate cobbler
For the cobbler topping
150g white chocolate
120g plain flour
20g rye flour
40g ground almonds
60g soft light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
100g cold butter
150g Greek yoghurt
For the rhubarb
Butter for greasing
1kg trimmed rhubarb, chopped into 4cm pieces, and in half if very thick
300g caster sugar
60g plain flour
1. Start by popping the white chocolate into the freezer, ideally an hour or so ahead of cooking. This will help the chocolate retain a little shape while it's in the oven and give you lovely chocolate bursts in the finished pudding. Preheat the oven to 180°C and butter a 20cm round baking dish
2. Toss the rhubarb with the sugar and flour and tip into the prepared baking dish. It might seem like a lot of flour but stay with it.
3. Now make the cobbler topping. In a mixing bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients. Grate the butter into the bowl and rub it in with your fingertips to produce what looks like rough breadcrumbs.
4. Chop the chocolate into pieces about the size of your small fingernail and add to the dry ingredients. Stir in the yoghurt to make a stiff dough - try not to overmix.
5. Place blobs of the dough on top of the rhubarb and flatten slightly so the top is almost but not completely covered. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is golden and you can see juices bubbling slightly at the edges. Serve with vanilla icing or gently whipped cream.