February 17, 2019

Eating Local, Seasonal Reflects Meaning of Tu B’Shevat

Could the renaissance of the Tu B’Shevat seder be any timelier? First, the birthday of trees is about hope and mindful stewardship of the land; that is, tikkun olam (repairing the world). The seder is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to this purpose by celebrating the fruits of the earth (read: a fabulous vegetarian meal prepared from sustainably farmed,  local ingredients).

Wait, another seder? Who knew? That’s a bit of an overstatement perhaps, since the service is getting play both here and in Israel for its dual emphasis on pleasure and moral sustenance. As my Aunt Hanna, who lives in Bat Yam, says, “It feeds the soul.”

Although it’s hardly common household practice, this seder has its roots in 16th century kabbalist tradition and links the beauty and bounty of the natural world to our inner, spiritual one. We are to rejoice in the flavors and symbolism of specified fruits: Nuts with inedible shells and citrus, for instance, represent the challenges to reaching something good. Fruits with inedible cores — olives, dates, plums, apricots and the like (eaten dried in winter) — symbolize creation and renewal; soft, wholly edible fruits such as dried figs and grapes (raisins) signify divine creation, and the intangible fragrances of cinnamon bark, kumquats, or citron (etrog) suggest pre-creation. (There are some botanical and culinary inconsistencies in the list, but we won’t worry about that.)

Special attention is paid to the seven fruits and grains of Israel — olives, dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat and barley — and to the symbol of Tu B’Shevat — the almond, whose snowy blossoms are among the first of the year to appear on fruiting trees. In the same way that we anticipate a season’s first arrivals at the farmers’ market, at the seder we say a Shehecheyanu for the fruits we taste for the first time that year.

Further, this seder’s four cups of wine move beautifully from winter white through spring’s pale blush to summer’s vibrant and autumn’s deeper red to mark the passage of the year. These days, as we attempt to relearn the growing seasons and gain awareness of where our food comes from by shopping at local farmers’ markets, the Tu B’Shevat seder is a lovely way to imprint the lessons.

Celebrated as one of four Jewish new years, the 15th of Shevat was the date used to calculate a tree’s age for purposes of tithing. Leviticus 19:23-25 forbids partaking of a tree’s fruits until the fifth year of its life.

According to the kabbalist rabbis, each tree has an angel that helps it set fruit, and these angels are re-energized for the new year’s work by our blessings.

I’ve long reported that it is important to buy directly from our local farmers for two reasons — for the benefits we shoppers reap and because putting the produce directly into our hands emotionally sustains the farmer. Turns out, we are the growers’ angels, and our weekly support is the blessing that gives farmers the strength to continue their arduous work.

The rabbis say we must consume the fruit as we say the blessing to keep the divine energy flowing into this cycle of renewal. In keeping with this mandala-like flow, I like to turn the list of symbolic foods to practical purpose and use them to create the seder meal.

Almonds and olives roasted together with aromatic herbs and citrus peel or slices of kumquat are a festive starter. Make a simple, but apt, winter salad of moist, chewy dates, tart-sweet mandarins and peppery arugula. Serve pearled barley, wheat berries, faro or spelt (two ancient types of wheat) with pomegranate-and orange-glazed beets and their greens, chickpeas, raisins, toasted pistachios and a scattering of diced, creamy winter avocado (one of the modern additions to the ritual food list).

Dessert can be as simple as dried figs cooked in red wine, honey, cinnamon stick and bay leaves, accompanied by store-bought halvah or almond cookies. Or as elegant as a dried plum-and-almond custard tart that is a winter riff on Rosh Hashanah’s fresh plum zwetschgenkuchen. For a keeping cake, try Alice Medrich’s dried fruit and nut cake — a tasty variation on the artificially colored, candied-fruit version.

Most of these dishes are simple to prepare and can be made well ahead. If we begin with flavorful ingredients (achieved though careful growing and harvesting), the task of producing a delicious meal is even easier, offering its own kind of angelic blessing on us cooks.

But back to wine for a moment: the seder’s poetic white-to-red progression is achieved by mixing the two colors together, a distressing thought to wine connoisseurs. During the meal, why not serve whites, rosés and reds from local, conscientious producers as one more touchstone of sustainable practice.

Finally, keep in mind that the Garden of Eden was filled with “all sorts of trees, pleasant to look at and good for eating.” This holiday is about abundance, variety, beauty and flavor, as well as a call to save the planet. Decorate with blossoms and fruits on the branch (farmers often bring cuttings to the market), adorn a basket that overflows with seder fruits, and put flowers in your children’s hair. Enjoy yourselves and take hope that we will “be as trees in the field” with deep-rooted strength to tackle the hard work ahead.

Whole Grains With Pomegranate-and-Orange-Glazed Beets and Their Greens,
Chickpeas and Raisins

Note that some whole grains require overnight soaking, so read package directions carefully. You can also substitute quick-cooking Israeli or pearl couscous, or coarse bulgur. The different components may be made a day ahead and the dish put together just before serving.

1 cup wheat berries, pearled barley, spelt or faro, cooked according to package directions (should yield 3 to 4 cups cooked) or, 1 8-ounce package Israeli couscous, cooked
2 pounds beets with greens attached
1 onion, chopped
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup raisins
4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cinnamon
1 avocado, such as fuerte, pinkerton or gwen, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup roasted and salted pistachios, chopped

Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut off beet greens, leaving 1 inch of stem attached to beets. Wash and reserve greens. Scrub beets. Leave small beets whole and cut large ones into halves or thirds. In a large baking dish, toss beets with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan and roast beets until almost tender when pierced with knife, about 30 minutes, shaking pan to turn beets once during cooking time. Uncover, and roast uncovered until tender, about 15 minutes more. When cool, peel beets using a paring knife (skins should come off easily) and cut into 1-inch pieces.

Coarsely chop beet greens. In a wide pot over medium heat, sauté onion in 3 tablespoons olive oil until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in beet greens, season with salt and pepper, and cook uncovered until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add chickpeas, raisins, 1/4 cup of the orange juice, 2 tablespoons of the pomegranate juice, 1/2 cup water and pinch of cinnamon. Cover pot, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until greens are tender and liquids make a nice sauce, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour remaining orange and pomegranate juices into a large skillet set over medium-high heat, and cook until reduced by half and slightly syrupy, about 10 minutes. Add beets and a little salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium, and cook beets, frequently spooning juices over them, until juices become a thick syrup, 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce heat to keep glaze from browning, and stir constantly 1 to 2 minutes more until beets are richly coated and juices become a thick glaze. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Stir cooked grains into greens-and-chickpea mixture and warm over low heat. If mixture seems dry, stir in additional water and remaining tablespoon oil and cook briefly to blend flavors. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon as desired. Place on a serving platter, top with glazed beets, diced avocado and chopped pistachios. May be served warm or at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings.

Dried Plum and Toasted Almond Cream Tart
Adapted from “The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook.”

1/2 pound mixed dried plums and pluots, quartered
1/3 cup cognac
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup whole raw almonds, toasted and finely chopped
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
5 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
3 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Place fruits in a bowl and pour in cognac and boiling water. Cover and allow to plump 4 hours or overnight.

Measure out 3 tablespoons nuts and reserve. Put remaining almonds, 1 1/2 cups of the cream and 3 tablespoons of the sugar in a pot over medium-low heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, until cream just comes to a boil. Remove from heat, cover partially, and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on almonds to extract all the cream, and then discard almonds. Allow almond cream to cool to lukewarm. In large bowl, whisk egg yolks until blended. Gradually whisk almond cream into yolks.

Preheat oven to 375 F. In a bowl, use a fork to stir together flour, remaining sugar and salt. Add butter and cut in with your fingers or pastry blender until mixture is crumbly. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons cream. The dough will be very crumbly. Gather it together and place in a deep 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Pat dough evenly along bottom and sides of pan, being careful that it is not too thick where sides and bottom meet. The dough may not reach to the rim of the pan. If dough feels dry, the warmth of your hands will bring it together; if it feels sticky, dust your hands with flour as you pat. Chill for 15 minutes.

Line tart shell with parchment paper or paper coffee filters. Fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until edges of shell start to color, about 15 minutes. Remove weights and parchment, and use a large spoon to gently smooth bottom and sides of shell, sealing any cracks. Return pan to oven and bake until bottom is a deep gold, about 20 minutes. Cool briefly on a rack. Reduce oven temperature to 325 F.

Sprinkle reserved almonds evenly over tart shell and place on baking sheet. Drain plums, gently squeezing out any excess liquid, and reserve liquid. Scatter plums over crust, and pour almond cream over plums. Bake until filling is set, 28 to 30 minutes. Cool on rack.

In small pan, cook plum soaking liquid over medium-low heat until reduced to 2 to 3 tablespoons thick syrup, about 10 minutes. Brush syrup over cooled tart to glaze it.

Makes 12 servings.

Arugula Salad With Dates and Mandarins
Adapted from “The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook” by Amelia Saltsman.

1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) dates such as Honey, Halawy or Khadrawy
5 mandarin oranges such as Satsuma, Clementine, Page or Perfection
4 cups (about 1/4 pound) arugula
About 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces aged, salty grating cheese such as manchego or super-aged Gouda, optional

Remove any hard caps at the stem ends of the dates, and use your fingers to pull out the pits. Use kitchen scissors to cut the dates into quarters lengthwise and place in a salad bowl. Peel and section 4 of the mandarins, peeling away any webbing clinging to the segment membranes. Add the mandarin segments and arugula to the dates. Drizzle with the oil and the juice of the remaining mandarin, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss the salad and shave the cheese over the top to serve.
Makes 6 servings

Dried Fruit and Nut Cake
Adapted from “Pure Dessert” by Alice Medrich (Artisan, 2007).

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
1 cup dried apricots, plums, pluots, pears or peaches, or a mix (to measure, leave apricot-sized fruits whole and cut larger fruits in half or thirds)
2 cups quartered dates
3 cups walnut halves
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 300 F. Spray one 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or two 8-by-4-inch loaf pans with vegetable oil spray or line bottom and sides with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk flour with baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add brown sugar, all the dried fruit and nuts, and mix thoroughly with your fingers. In a small bowl, beat eggs with vanilla until light. Pour egg mixture over dry ingredients and mix well with wooden spoon or your hands until all fruit and nuts are coated with batter. Scrape into prepared pan(s).

Bake until the top is deep golden brown and the batter clinging to fruit seems set, about 1 1/4 hours for small loaves, 10 to 15 minutes longer for large loaf. Tent loosely with foil if cake appears to be browning too much. Cool completely in pan(s) set on rack. Remove cake from pan. It will keep, wrapped airtight in foil or plastic wrap, for several weeks at room temperature or at least three months in refrigerator.

To serve, cut into thin slices with a sharp heavy knife.

Makes 1 large loaf or 2 small ones.

Amelia Saltsman is a writer, cooking teacher, television host and author of “The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories From the Market and Farm” (Blenheim Press, 2007).