Help! There's a giant triffid in my garden! It has monstrous pink tentacles that fumble wildly from the earth, stretching towards the skies, and huge, grasping, green hands the size of dustbin lids, threatening to engulf and consume everything they touch. Every time I look it has grown, violently thrusting more of those rigid spears from the ground, one step closer on its mission to take over the world. Its proliferating legs creak stiffly in the breeze, like those of a spider with rigor mortis, threatening destruction. Its leafy clutches will soon start to block out the sun, throwing the planet into a state of black oblivion. We are doomed.
I'm fairly certain John Wyndham was inspired to write that cult classic, The Day of the Triffids, after he decided to experiment with cultivating rhubarb in his garden. This really is quite an astonishing specimen of the botanical world. You start with what looks like a clod of earth, perhaps with some gnarled, alien-esque growths protruding from its black mass. You bury it in the ground, certain nothing will ever come of this, for how on earth could anything spring to life under such a huge, dark blanket of earth?
Yet, come early spring, you'll walk through the garden and stop, noticing some strange, knobbly, fern-like growths clinging to the surface of the soil like a clutch of eggs. Keep watching, and they'll unfurl almost before your eyes, like slender pink magic wands unleashing a green leaf with a sudden flourish.
And by the next day the entire thing will be gigantic and triffid-like and its leaves will be so large you could comfortably use them as umbrellas, enough umbrellas to cover the inhabitants of a small town during a sudden deluge, and there will be so. many. stalks. and you will believe the entire thing is a conspiracy and someone has actually just broken into your garden in the night and stuck a load of rhubarb stalks in the ground because really, how on earth can it grow so big in so little time? And those leaves, are they even real? Since when did leaves become so big? They can't be real. Unless it's a monster. It must be a monster.
Fortunately, you can tame this monster. It's not going to turn everyone blind and then take over the earth. Or maybe it is, but you mustn't let it. The key, as with most monsters, is to attack it with a sharp knife. Cut off its legs and eat them. As you do with most monsters, right? Just be aware that, like Hercules with the Hydra, you will find at least forty million more stalks grow back for every one you cut off.
Home-grown rhubarb isn't as nice as the forced, bright pink Yorkshire stuff you get in late winter. There, I've said it. Although I am ridiculously full of pride at my two enormous, triffid-esque rhubarb specimens that I somehow managed to grow by seemingly doing nothing more than shoving a piece of earth in the earth, the thick, pinky-green stalks tend to be quite stringy and sour. They're not best suited to desserts, where you want to showcase both the sweet flavour and the gorgeous hot pink of early rhubarb. You can bury them underneath a buttery crumble topping (as you can with just about anything, really) to hide the unappetising colour, and smother them in more sugar than you like to think about, but why fight the sourness? Why not use these prolific stalks in a savoury recipe, where their pleasing sharpness will be more welcome?
This recipe comes from Helen Graves's excellent blog Food Stories, inspired by her trip to Istanbul, and is the perfect way to use up some home-grown rhubarb. These tender lamb meatballs are enriched with Turkish red pepper flakes, cinnamon and harissa (Helen uses Turkish red pepper paste but I couldn't be bothered to fill up my fridge with more jars of things) and kept light and fluffy with the addition of bread soaked in water (sounds weird, but it works). The sauce is a tangy blend of rhubarb, white wine, pomegranate molasses and cardamom, sweetened with a little sugar, and provides a perfect foil for the spiced meat. I served these with some rice and peas (not particularly Turkish, but I had a real craving for peas), a dollop of yoghurt (essential to mellow out all that spicy sweet-sour flavour), some fresh coriander and some chopped pistachios, for colour and texture. It was a real feast and a delightfully unusual combination of tastes and textures, as well as a novel way to use up rhubarb.
Turkish-style lamb meatballs with sweet-sour rhubarb sauce (serves 4):
For the meatballs:
- 400g lamb mince
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 shallots or 1 onion, very finely diced
- 2 tsp Turkish red pepper flakes
- 1 heaped tbsp harissa paste
- Salt and pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 slice of sourdough (or normal) bread, soaked in water then squeezed dry
For the sauce:
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- A knob of butter
- A generous splash of white wine
- 350g rhubarb, sliced into 1-inch chunks
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 1.5 tbsp golden caster sugar (or to taste)
- 2 cardamom pods, crushed
- 4 tbsp chopped fresh coriander, to garnish
- 4 tbsp chopped pistachios, to garnish (optional)
- Yoghurt and rice, to serve
Put the lamb mince in a bowl with the other meatball ingredients and mix well with your hands, kneading the mixture together until everything is evenly blended. Shape into around 25 meatballs, then set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat the oil and butter over a medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs in batches until golden and crispy on all sides, then remove from the pan and set aside. Splash in the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze, then add the rhubarb, pomegranate molasses, sugar and cardamom pods. Add a small splash of water. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer, then cook for 10 minutes. Return the meatballs to the pan, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Check the sauce for seasoning and sweetness, adding a little more sugar if necessary, then serve the meatballs and sauce with rice and yoghurt, garnished with the coriander and pistachios, if using.
[Barely adapted from this recipe from Food Stories]