Sage Spring Advice: Three Reasons Why Rhubarb Reminds Us of All Things Important

Rhubarb must often feel like the underdog of the gardening world. While everyone lusts after things like the first greens, peas and asparagus, rhubarb tends to fall into more of a love-hate relationship with folks: Either you crave it and know exactly how to transform it from pie plant to something amazing, or you had it once and swore off it forever.

But rhubarb takes on a deeper meaning for me each spring, as it pops up ruby red and ready in my Wisconsin garden on our farm. Call rhubarb my Yoda in the garden: if I take the time to be mindful, rhubarb reminds me of all those big picture life values I always need a gentle nudge on, especially during the busy spring gardening time. Here are some wise nuggets from rhubarb (followed by my favorite rhubarb recipe: Rhubarb Custard Bars):

1. Perennials Rock (and Simplify Life)
Every spring, without any shout out from me, the rhubarb reliably pops up in the garden. Now I realize this observation isn’t anything new, but that concept of “perennial” was something totally novel to my husband, John, and I when we moved to our farm over a decade ago, leaving the Chicago urban scene behind. We grew up in the land of the suburbs where everyone planted the flats of petunias and other annuals every spring, so the idea that something regularly appears with no effort on our part ranked utterly amazing.

Rhubarb reminds us that this perennial concept in gardening should be a theme throughout all of our lives: Focus on and prioritize those elements that really matter, the things that perpetually magnificently grow in our lives naturally, without much effort – or fertilizer or frustration – on our part. Family, friends, your love for cooking. You name it for you personally; rhubarb reminds us that life grows simply and prolifically when we focus on those perennial categories that work naturally in our lives.

2. Relish the Moment

I’ve collected a repertoire of rhubarb recipes over the years, like the Rhubarb Custard Bars below, that I indulge in every spring as soon as that rhubarb pops up. The tart bite of rhubarb celebrates the flavors of spring just when my palette is ready to post-winter party. During my first couple of years gardening, I went overboard and froze a lot of rhubarb, packing it away in the freezer for winter baking. What happened? That rhubarb would always sit in the bottom of my chest freezer unused all winter, until the following spring, when I would desperately try to use it up before the next fresh crop of rhubarb came along.

I went through this cycle a few times before I realized the rhubarb was shouting another important lesson I wasn’t hearing: Don’t freeze, just eat. For me, I needed to live more in the movement, live seasonally and savor and relish that spring crop of rhubarb and move on. Give away my extra rhubarb, but don’t go nutty packing a lot away. Rhubarb is one of those experiences meant to be enjoyed while it is here fully, appreciated to its fullest, then move on.

3. Sweetness improves everything
Rhubarb can be deceiving. With its tempting red color, it looks like you should be able to just chomp right on it, something that would maybe have the texture of celery and the flavor of a strawberry.

Ouch. Wrong. The tartness of rhubarb makes it almost impossible to eat without some kind of additional flavoring, most commonly sugar. But sugar goes along way in taking something borderline inedible and transforming it into delicious and appetizing.

I hear you, rhubarb. A dash of sweetness goes a long way in enhancing just about any category of life. This time of year brings on annual chaos to our farm. Between garden plantings to the start of the bed and breakfast season to writing deadlines, life quickly moves into the fast lane after the dormancy of winter. It can easily fall victim to my to-do list and become the stressed, unfocused crabby woman in our household. As I’m, ahem, the only woman here, that’s a bad scene, and so I’ve learned a little sweetness goes a long way. Keeping the jokes high and biting sarcasm low. Complimenting my husband on all the work he finished on the farm and not focus on what’s left on the chore list. These dashes of sweetness in life go a long way in cooking up a richer end product, just like with rhubarb.

Enjoy these Custard Bars, from our B&B cookbook: Edible Earth: Savoring the Good Life with Vegetarian Recipes from Inn Serendipity, served up with a dash of these mindful insights:

Rhubarb Custard Bars

Bar Ingredients:
2 c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. sugar
1 c. cold butter (2 sticks)

Filling Ingredients:
2 c. sugar
7 T. all-purpose flour
1 c. heavy whipping cream
3 eggs, lightly beaten
5 c. finely chopped fresh rhubarb

Topping Ingredients:
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
½ c. sugar
½ t. vanilla extract
1 c. heavy whipping cream, whipped

* In a bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press into a greased 9-in. x 13-in. pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
* Meanwhile, for filling, combine sugar and flour in a bowl. Whisk in cream and eggs. Stir in rhubarb. Pour over crust.
* Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until custard is set. Cool.
* For topping, beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Fold in whipped cream. Spread over top. Cover and chill. Cut into bars.

Serves 10-12.

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