Tu B’Shevat foods celebrate the produce of Israel

By Tina Wasserman

“Tu B’Shevat is here, the Jewish Arbor Day, Hail the Trees’ New Year, Happy Holiday.” That childhood song reverberates in my ear every year at this time. As a child we gave our “Keren Ami” to buy trees for Israel to make that country lush and vibrant. If you ever visited Israel near its borders, I’m sure you were struck by the differentials between the taupe-colored swaths of hills and valleys across the border and the growth of crops and trees on the Israeli side.

Originally established to commemorate the fortunate amount of rain in previous months needed for the success of spring crops, the holiday morphed into the celebration of the seven species associated with the land of Israel: almonds, grapes, wheat and barley, dates, figs and pomegranates. The timing of the holiday coincides with the first blossoms of the almond tree.

The following recipes incorporate some of the aforementioned species, and the photograph is one of the new trees we planted to replace the tree damaged last year due to the tornado. It joins the fig and pomegranate trees that are also in our yard! 

The following recipe is a derivation of a classic grape sorbet I found in a Spanish cookbook so you might say it is Sephardic! Delicious on its own or served with some Mandelbrot, you can serve this for the holiday and incorporate two ingredients in one course!

Herbal Grape Sorbet

1 pound seedless green or red grapes

5 small leaves of Mexican Mint Marigold, tarragon or basil

4 ounces sweet dessert wine (Riesling, Moscato D’Asti or Gewürztraminer)

Juice of ½ medium lemon

2 or more tablespoons of simple syrup (see recipe below)

1. Cut grapes in half and then place them in a processor workbowl. Pulse the machine on and off until most of the grapes are pulverized. 

2. Add the herbs and process the mixture until it is fairly smooth. Let the mixture sit and flavors steep for 15 minutes

3. Place the grape-herb mixture in a fine mesh strainer over a 2-quart mixing bowl. Press on the grape pulp to extract as much juice as possible.

4. Add the wine and lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of simple syrup to the grape liquid. Taste to see if more sugar is needed (this will depend on the sweetness of the grapes). 

5. Place in the container of an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s directions to make the sorbet. May be served immediately or stored in an airtight container in the freezer until ready to serve.

Makes about 1½ pints

Simple Syrup

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

2 teaspoons orange blossom water (optional, but terrific!)

1. Combine the sugar and water in a 1-quart saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until the mixture begins to clear.

2. When mixture is clear and all the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat, add the orange blossom water and pour into a jar. Store in the refrigerator indefinitely and use in sorbets or drinks or pour some over fresh berries just before serving.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• Having simple syrup readily available in your fridge makes for instant sorbet of any fruit that comes in season for the next six months. I even add a large, fresh fig leaf from my tree to step one to impart a delicious, but subtle, flavor to the syrup.

• If you have a good-quality blender like a Vitamix, then you can pulverize the grapes quickly and then add the herbs with a few seconds of blending.

• Over-blending herbs increases the chlorophyll taste, overpowering the herb flavor. 

Easy but fantastic as a delicious hors d’oeuvre. This recipe not only reminds me of Israel but of the 1,000-year-old goat farm I visited in the Negev two years ago.

Fresh Figs with Goat Cheese and Honey

12 Calimyrna figs, cut in half

4 ounces good quality chèvre goat cheese

3 to 4 tablespoons wildflower or berry honey

French bread or crackers (optional)

1. Place figs on a plate, cut side up.

2. Spread some of the goat cheese on each fig.

3. Drizzle with some honey and serve.

Alternately, serve a plate with all of the ingredients and allow your guests to prepare their own. You can also serve them on a bed of lettuce as a first course.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• The Christian priests who built the missions in California brought over fig saplings, and thus the figs from that species were called Mission figs.

• The Smyrna fig from the Middle East, when planted in California, was named the Calimyrna fig.

• If fresh figs aren’t available, use soft, dried figs. Soak them for a short time in warm water or wine, cut them in half lengthwise and then top according to the recipe. 

Italian Pignoli Cookies

Light, almond macaroons studded with pine nuts (pignoli) were always my favorite at Italian bakeries but seemed very hard to make. I also felt they were expensive to make and never could remember whether I needed to buy a tube of marzipan or almond paste for the recipe. However, all that changed when I discovered almond meal at my local discount food warehouse. 

Easy Homemade Almond Paste:

200 grams almond meal or 1½ cups slivered blanched almonds, finely processed

200 grams confectioners’ sugar or 12/3 cups

3 tablespoons egg white (approximately white of 1 large egg)

1 tablespoon wildflower or clover honey

½ teaspoon almond extract

1. Place almond meal and all of the ingredients into a processor work bowl and process until mixture is well combined and smooth. 

2. Lightly dust your counter with confectioners’ sugar and gently turn mixture until you can handle dough. 

3. Cut dough in half, shape each half into a log, cover with plastic wrap and then refrigerate for an hour or freeze for later use. Each log will weigh 8 ounces.

To Make Cookies:

8 ounces almond paste (store-bought or homemade)

2/3 cup powdered sugar

1 large egg white (about 3 tablespoons)

¼ teaspoon almond extract

Pinch of salt

8 ounces pine nuts or slivered almonds

1. Place almond paste in chunks into a processor workbowl and pulse machine on and off to break up the paste.

2. Add the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the pine nuts and process until a smooth paste is formed. 

3. Scrape mixture into a bowl and freeze for a half-hour or refrigerate for an hour or more until it is easy to handle.

4. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil with the dull side facing you. Set aside.

5. Place the pine nuts in a low-sided bowl (a soup bowl is perfect for this).

6. Lightly wet your hands before handling dough if it is very soft and sticky. Scoop a heaping teaspoon of dough into your hand and lightly roll it into a ball. Lightly toss the ball into the pine nuts, coating all sides with the nuts. Place on the prepared baking sheet an inch apart and continue with the rest of the dough.

7. Bake for 15-20 minutes until cookies are rounded and nuts are lightly browned. They shouldn’t be too pale.

8. When cool, store in an airtight container for a week or more or freeze in an airtight freezer bag until needed.

Yield: About 24-30 cookies

Tina’s Tidbits:

• Almond extract is needed to give the dish its characteristic flavor. The extract is made from the bitter almond, which is actually poisonous when eaten, but the extraction process makes it flavorful and safe.

• This dough is soft and won’t roll like a cookie dough so wet your hands, shake off excess water and then flip the cookies between two palms to shape the dough before rolling in the pine nuts or slivered almonds if pine nuts aren’t available.

• There is no need to roast the nuts before using. The amount of time in the oven will roast the nuts to a perfect color.

A perfect way to incorporate three of the seven species to celebrate Tu B’Shevat. This salad is great any time of year with or without the cheese, and the dressing can be used in many different ways including as a marinade for chicken or fish.

Arugula Salad with Dates
and Chèvre

4 ounces arugula, about 4 cups

8 large, pitted soft Medjool dates, cut into ¼-inch slices

¼ cup diced red onion

4 ounces crumbled goat cheese

¼ cup dry-roasted shelled almonds or sunflower seeds

¼ cup Pomegranate Vanilla Vinaigrette (see recipe)

1. Rinse the arugula and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a salad bowl.

2. Lightly oil a cutting knife and then cut the dates in half lengthwise. Cut each half crosswise about 2 or 3 times. Set aside.

3. Toss the arugula with ¼ cup of the dressing. Place on 4 or 5 individual plates. (Alternatively, see step 6.)

4. Evenly distribute the dates, onions, goat cheese crumbles, and sunflower seeds on each plate.

5. Grind a little black pepper on and drizzle with the remaining dressing.

6. You can also toss everything together in one large bowl and serve.

Pomegranate Vanilla Vinaigrette

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar

¼ cup pomegranate molasses (available in Middle Eastern markets)

2 teaspoons sugar or 1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon Adams’ Best Vanilla or any rich vanilla extract

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a screw-top jar and shake thoroughly until well blended. 

Tina’s Tidbits: 

• Medjool dates are larger and, in my opinion, sweeter than Deglat Noor dates. If either seems very dry, soak them in water for a few minutes before removing the pits and slicing.

• Do not use commercially diced and sugar-coated dates. They are too sweet!

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