Rhubarb, rhubarb

Our new columnist, Nicholas Clee, gets excited about a first crop of pink-stalked vegetables

My greengrocer was offering cherries the other day. Cherries in January! There were punnets of raspberries, too. The shop has summer fruit on its front tables all year round. But, when you go inside, you find English produce that appears only when it has been available, fresh and in season, at the market. You know it will be good.

Last Saturday, the first special treat of the month arrived: crisp and garish pink stalks of forced rhubarb. Food that fashion once misguidedly taught us to look down on is particularly delicious.

Rhubarb is, of course, a vegetable that usually pretends to be a fruit. You can call it a fruit if you want, with the support of a ruling by the US Customs Court; just as you are entitled to describe a tomato as a vegetable, this time thanks to a US Supreme Court verdict. Another unusual feature of rhubarb is that it responds well to forcing - cultivation in darkened conditions that encourage early growth.

This is unseasonal growing, but rhubarb has its own season. Farmers gather the roots in the last three months of the year, and plant them in forcing sheds. The stalks come on to the market in early January. Outdoor-grown rhubarb, with a more assertive flavour, is available from late March.

Guides to cooking rhubarb are often misleading, because they do not take account of the volume of water that the stalks may disgorge. Browsing through recipes, I came across one by Antony Worrall Thompson for rhubarb fool: you start by covering the rhubarb in water with orange juice and sugar, and boiling it rapidly until it softens. You will be left, I suspect, with a mixture that is too liquid to make a satisfactory fool; and if you boil it to thicken it, you will end up with a grey-green sludge that has no trace of the original pigmentation.

The language of recipes is a kind of shorthand, and rarely informs you of just how much tinkering that dishes require. You need to tinker with rhubarb. Put a puddle of water in a saucepan, so that the stalks do not catch before they soften. Cut the stalks into 2cm lengths, and throw them into the pan with some sugar (go easy - you can add more later). Cover the pan and put it on a medium flame. Once the contents are cooking and starting to combine, you can uncover the pan, stirring the stalks into the liquid. Take the pan off the heat as soon as they soften.

There may be too much liquid: but if you carry on cooking the rhubarb, you will obliterate its colour. Drain, and boil the liquid that falls through the sieve until it turns syrupy. Recombine with the rhubarb, mashed if you like, and check the sugar. For a delicious fool, fold the rhubarb (which you may want to spice with nutmeg and ginger) into a similar volume of lightly whipped cream, and chill.

Nicholas Clee will be writing this column fortnightly. His blog, Sceptical Cook, is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com