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While Israeli children welcome Tu Bishvat by singing about the flowering almond tree, the shkedia, adults should sing the virtues of the almond. This nut packs a potent nutritional punch.
According to Dr. Steven Pratt, the author of Superfoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (with Kathy Matthews; Morrow, 2004), "Almonds are the best nut source of vitamin E and a powerful plant source of protein. Almonds also contain riboflavin, iron, potassium and magnesium, and they're a good source of fiber."
Almonds are the cornerstone of the Portfolio Diet, developed by Dr. David J. A. Jenkins of the University of Toronto as a natural way to lower cholesterol. The other elements of this vegetarian diet are foods rich in soluble fiber, such as apples, broccoli and oatmeal; soy foods; and plant sterols, found in vegetable oils and nuts and available as supplements.
Most people eat almonds primarily because they're delicious. Popular around the world, almonds appear in so many recipes that it's hard to think of a cuisine that does not make use of them. They are best known in their sweet uses, from Chinese almond cookies to French almond tarts.
Yet there are countless ways to use almonds to enhance savory dishes as well. Indian cooks use almonds to thicken sauces and saute them to garnish fragrant rice dishes.
On the menus of Chinese restaurants, you'll often find stir-fried chicken with whole almonds and colorful vegetables. Chopped toasted almonds provide an effective way to enliven a simple dish of Chinese cabbage flavored with ginger, writes Elizabeth Schneider in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (Morrow, 2001). Festive versions of Moroccan couscous are often embellished with fried almonds. An appealing southern Italian dish, according to Michelle Scicolone, the author of 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley, 2004), is a sweet pepper saute with tomatoes and garlic, finished with capers, anchovies and toasted almonds.
It's not surprising that the almond tree is considered the herald of Tu Bishvat, an Israeli holiday. Almonds have had a long history in the lands of the Bible. They are mentioned in the Torah and are thought to have originated in the Mideast. Indeed, cooks in our region have developed numerous ways to enjoy them, from baklava to burekas.
Burekas? Who puts almonds in burekas? My friend Aviva Maoz does for a holiday meal, baking delicious, spiral-shaped burekas with a filling of beef and sauteed almonds.
Aviva creatively uses almonds to highlight all sorts of foods, especially vegetables. I have often made French-style green beans topped with sauteed almonds, but Aviva takes this classic formula one step further. Whether her vegetables are steamed or stir-fried, she often finishes them with a combination of sauteed onions and toasted slivered almonds. Usually she mixes several vegetables for a colorful medley and cooks them lightly so they retain a slightly crisp texture.
At pot-luck dinners with a tempting selection of dishes, her almond-topped vegetables always disappear first. For a winter dinner, she tossed together Brussels sprouts, green beans, water chestnuts and green soy beans. Another time it was snow peas, sliced mushrooms, carrot strips and green beans.
The almonds are the secret to making such healthful medleys irresistible, adding their good flavor and a pleasing crunch. To get even more into the Tu Bishvat spirit, you might like to add a touch of sweetness to your vegetables with a sprinkling of raisins as well.
VEGETABLE MEDLEY WITH TOASTED ALMONDS
Sauteed onion, garlic and oregano flavor this vegetable mixture. If you like, substitute frozen green beans for the squash, or mushrooms for the eggplant. Drained canned water chestnuts or frozen cooked lima beans are also good additions. Serve the vegetables with chicken or, if you like, spoon them over brown rice or linguine.
2 small pale-skinned squash (keeshou) or zucchini
1 small eggplant (about 350 grams)
41â„2 to 5 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 medium or large onion, halved, cut in thin slices
1 large red bell pepper, seeds and ribs discarded, cut in thin strips
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 tsp. dried oregano
1â„3 to 1â„2 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see Note below)
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Cut squash in 3 pieces crosswise, then in thin strips lengthwise. Peel eggplant and cut in thin strips.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Saute, tossing constantly, about 7 minutes or until just tender.
Transfer to a bowl.
Add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet. Heat over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until softened but not brown. Add pepper strips, salt and pepper and cook, tossing often, about 5 minutes or until onions and peppers are nearly tender. Add squash and eggplant and cook, tossing often, until squash is crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer vegetables to a shallow bowl or a platter.
Add remaining olive oil to skillet from cooking vegetables and heat over low heat. Add garlic and cook about 1/2 minute. Add oregano and half of toasted almonds and heat 2 or 3 seconds. Pour mixture over vegetables, add parsley and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with remaining toasted almonds.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: To toast slivered almonds, toast the nuts on a baking sheet or baking tray in a preheated 175 C oven or toaster oven. Toast 4 to 5 minutes or until they brown lightly; watch them carefully so they don't burn. As soon as they are ready, transfer them to a plate so they won't continue to brown from the heat of the tray.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).