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Shavuot, like other biblical holidays, combines religious and agricultural themes. It's known as the holiday of the Giving of the Torah, the Festival of First Fruits (Hag Habikurim) and the Feast of the Harvest (Hag Hakatzir).
So how did it turn into the holiday of cheesecake? We're told that the children of Israel abstained from meat before receiving the Torah. In Jewish culinary culture, if a meal is not b'sari - if it doesn't include meat - it's halavi (dairy) or parve (neither). In the Bible, grains and produce are more prominent at Shavuot than dairy foods. The story of Ruth, which is read on the holiday, takes place in the grain fields. Shavuot marks the end of the Omer period, referring to the days that were counted after the Omer offering - a measure of barley brought to the Temple on the second day of Pessah. For Shavuot, the Temple offering also involved grains, baked as two loaves of bread.
The holiday's produce element appears as "bikurim," the first fruits of the land. People arranged them in a basket and brought them ceremoniously to Jerusalem as an expression of thanks.
Combining grains and produce with dairy products is a fitting way to bring Shavuot's biblical background to life. Doing so can also add up to a healthful holiday celebration. After all, the biblical diet was the original Mediterranean diet so heartily recommended these days by nutritionists around the world.
Consider what foods were available. For someone who grew up in Israel, this is pretty easy. My husband readily recites the list of the "seven species" of the land of Israel, which he learned as a child: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
The seven species were not the only produce items with which cooks could vary their meals. The Middle East is where organized agriculture began, and our ancestors enjoyed an assortment of crops. Cucumbers, eggplants, onions, melons, almonds and pistachios were on the menu in the households of ancient Israel. (But not tomatoes, peppers or potatoes; they came from the New World.)
Dairy foods were often made from goat's and sheep's milk and undoubtedly resembled the traditional Middle Eastern cheeses still popular today: strained yogurt (labneh), fresh white cheeses and brined cheeses like feta.
These elements go together well on a menu. For example, you could serve vegetable soup with barley, a tabbouleh-type salad of bulgur wheat flavored with olive oil, and a raisin-studded cheesecake with a sauce of sliced dried figs warmed in honey.
Another way to honor Shavuot is to create a single dish from most of the seven species and serve it for the holiday dinner along with your family favorites. Since the weather is warm on Shavuot, a salad is a good choice.
Start with cooked barley, bulgur wheat, or a mixture of both, as each contributes a different flavor and texture. Then add raisins and dried figs. Pomegranates are not in season on Shavuot, but you can flavor the dressing with the sweet-tart flavor of pomegranate paste, juice or syrup. Enrich the salad with olive oil and olives. The ancient Israelis probably didn't have lemons, but they could season their salads with wine vinegar.
Cucumbers add a refreshing quality and onions enliven the grains' flavor. For more of a sweet touch, you could add melon cubes, too. If you'd like to boost the salad's nutritional value with vegetarian protein, you could choose lentils or chickpeas from your biblical pantry.
Toasted almonds or pistachios provide a festive finish.
To include the holiday's dairy theme and enhance the salad's flavor as well, add goat or feta cheese, or top each serving with tangy labneh. Of course, if your menu already features cheesecake, you may prefer to keep these rich milk products for another meal.
One advantage we do have over the ancient Hebrews is refrigeration, which allows us to relax and not feel compelled to finish our dairy foods as quickly as they had to.
Seven Species Salad
Serve this festive salad as a meatless main course, along with a green salad or as an appetizer. Later in the year, when pomegranates become available, a few spoonfuls of pomegranate seeds are a lovely, tasty addition.
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more if needed
1 large onion, chopped
3â„4 cup pearl barley
13â„4 to 2 cups vegetable broth
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons fresh or 1 teaspoon dried thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried za'atar
3â„4 cup medium bulgur wheat
1â„3 cup dried figs, cut in thin slices
1â„4 to 1â„3 cup raisins
2 teaspoons pomegranate paste (optional)
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
2 teaspoons honey (optional)
1â„4 cup chopped green onion
1â„4 cup chopped parsley
2 or 3 small cucumbers, diced
1â„3 cup pitted black olives, halved (optional)
1â„2 to 3â„4 cup crumbled feta or diced goat cheese (optional)
1â„4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium-low heat, stirring often, for five minutes or until softened but not brown. Remove half of onion and set aside. Add barley to pan and saute, stirring, 1 minute. Add 13â„4 cups broth, salt, pepper, and thyme and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 40 minutes or until barley is tender, adding more broth if liquid evaporates before barley is cooked.
Spoon reserved onion into another saucepan and heat it. Add bulgur wheat and saute, stirring, for two minutes. Add 11â„2 cups water, salt and pepper and bring to boil.
Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add figs and raisins, cover and cook for 5 more minutes or until water is absorbed and bulgur and fruit are tender.
Fluff barley with a fork. Lightly fold in bulgur wheat mixture. Cool to room temperature.
For dressing, whisk pomegranate paste with vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Add remaining oil. Fold into barley mixture. Add green onions, parsley, cucumbers and half the olives. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve topped with remaining olives, cheese and almonds.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).