Fred looks after three plots adjacent to ours. He’s retired, so he’s got a little extra time on his hands. He goes back home to Jamaica for the winter, but now he’s back and hard at work. Last year we observed with interest how he planted sweetcorn interspersed with pumpkins and courgettes, with bean plants climbing up the sweetcorn, an age-old plan known as the “three sisters”. It’s ingenious: the pumpkins are huge plants which sprawl all over the gaff and are mighty thirsty; the sweetcorn provides shade for the pumpkins whilst taking up only vertical space on which the beans can climb!
Thus inspired, we need to make space for the three girls by May time. This means digging, digging, digging. The sun was out on Saturday so out came the forks. We really should have done this earlier; the soil is good old North London clay and has set like cement.
In the “others” beds which we’ve already prepared, I planted two rows of “Marvel of Four Seasons” lettuce seedlings which were extremely good value last year. They’re covered with a cloche fashioned from a sheet of corrugated plastic bent into a tunnel and secured with sticks and wire.
And now for the harvest. Rhubarb! The tiny plant from last year is now well and truly established and I pulled the first ever clutch of stalks. Jane Grigson declares in her Fruit Book that “only young pink rhubarb is worth eating…freeze them for later use…much more satisfactory than making people suffer as the stalks grow thicker.” Well, these are quite green and thick, but the plant needed a chance to mature. Rather dubious, I stewed them up with sugar and the juice and zest of an orange and the house filled with a seductive smell. The pink blush won over the green colour, it wasn’t stringy, and the taste was sensational! It was so exciting, I went back for another batch to make the dessert below.
Tip of the week: Simply pull rhubarb stalks away from the base and they should snap right off. Remember, rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but they make terrific compost.
Roasted Rhubarb with Ginger-Spiked Meringue
Preheat oven to 220 C / 425 F / Gas 7. Cut 1kg rhubarb into chunks, place in a buttered dish and toss with 4-6 tbsp light brown sugar. Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until rhubarb is soft. Lower oven temperature to 180 C. In a very clean bowl, whisk 3 egg whites until stiff. Whisk in 180g caster sugar, a spoonful at a time. Finally, whisk in 1tbsp finely grated fresh ginger. Spread meringue over the cooked rhubarb. Bake for 20 minutes, until barely crisp and golden on top. Serves 4-6
(Originally published by The Times online)