Fruit ’n’ nut

Celebrate Tu Bishvat the grown-up way –by cooking with dried fruit.

(photo credit: MCT)
Every Tu Bishvat, from kindergarten up to eighth grade, the Beth-El Day School that I attended handed out little plastic bags of nuts, dates and a strange piece of something my mother called “boxer” in Yiddish, which looked and tasted like a piece of slightly sweet dried tree bark. It was to celebrate, they told us, the “New Year of Trees.”
I never really did understand why it was called the New Year of Trees until several years ago, while researching material for a Jewish holiday cookbook with my sister Miriyam. “In biblical times, Tu Bishvat was a tax day long before it was a holiday,” she explained. "Though the Bible never mentions that specific date, it does instruct the Israelites to pay tithes on trees and fruit.”
Centuries ago, the rabbis living in the Land of Israel tried to figure out a date for calculating tree tithing, and gazing at the signs of nature around them they noticed that from 15 Shvat the nights begin to grow shorter and the hours of daylight increase, gently warming the earth. Led by the almond tree, dormant trees awaken from their winter hibernation, sap rises in the trees, and the stillhidden fruiting process begins. The rebirth of the earth, they concluded, must be the birthday of trees.
After the fall of the Temple and the exile, when our ancestors no longer had access to the signs of nature in Israel, Tu Bishvat came to be commemorated by the eating of dried fruit from the Holy Land, but for as long as I can remember at least, it has deteriorated into merely the consumption of dried fruit (from all over the world) and foods made with them.
And while it is true that recent years have seen renewed interest in the ancient Tu Bishvat “seder” designed by the kabbalists of Safed (which included eating primarily fresh fruits), most of us still go out and buy dried figs from Turkey and papaya and pineapple from Thailand, with which to celebrate the holiday.
Ironic, isn't it?! So this year, I'm all for celebrating Tu Bishvat with Israeli-grown products, from our fantastic olive oil (remember, olives grow on trees!), to prunes, dates, pecans and almonds, with a few homegrown peanuts and raisins (which don’t grow on trees but can enrich our holiday menu). One manufacturer, Al Hamishkal, has even packaged an “only Israeli” gift package, available at the Rami Levi chain and at its stores in Givat Shmuel and Sha’ar Binyamin.
Serves 6 ✔ 1 large whole chicken, in six pieces, or chicken breasts with skin left on ✔ 1 cup extra virgin olive oil ✔ 8 cloves of garlic, peeled ✔ 1 Tbsp. capers in brine, drained ✔ 1 cup green olives, pitted ✔ 1 cup pitted prunes, packed ✔ 1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar ✔ 1⁄2 cup pomegranate molasses* ✔ 4 to 6 sprigs fresh oregano or thyme ✔ half cup water ✔ 1⁄4 cup packed bown sugar or honey ✔ 1 cup dry red wine * Pomegranate molasses can be found in supermarkets and specialty stores. Do not use the type that contains sugar.
Rinse the chicken and place the pieces in a bowl. Cover with boiling water. Lift one piece of chicken out at a time, and scrape the surface gently with a knife to remove pinfeathers and excess fat. Pat dry and place the pieces in one layer in a non-reactive (preferably glass) oven-to-table dish.
Mix together the olive oil, garlic cloves, capers, olives, pitted prunes, vinegar and pomegranate molasses, and pour over the chicken. Tear each sprig of oregano or thyme into 2 or 3 pieces and place around the chicken. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight, turning once or twice.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Mix the brown sugar with the wine and pour over the chicken. Turn pieces skin side up. Remove half the sprigs of fresh herbs. Cover the chicken and bake for 45 minutes, turning once. Remove the cover and continue to bake until the chicken pieces are a rich golden brown – another 15 to 20 minutes.
BULGUR PILAF WITH MUSHROOMS, RAISINS AND PUMPKIN SEEDS This recipe contains two of the Seven Species – bulgur (wheat) and raisins (grapes), with (pumpkin) seeds, which are believed to contain the mystical energy for new life.
Serves 4 to 6 ✔ 21⁄2 cups water
✔ 1 tsp. salt ✔ 2 cups coarse bulgur (use medium if no coarse is available) ✔ 1 Tbsp. light sesame oil or olive oil ✔ 1 Tbsp. dark (toasted) sesame oil ✔ 2 cups thinly sliced fresh mushrooms (about 450 gr.) ✔ 1 medium onion, chopped ✔ 1⁄4 cup raisins ✔ 1⁄3 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan ✔ Salt to taste
✔ Freshly ground pepper to taste
In a pot, bring the water to a boil and add the salt and bulgur. Bring to a boil again and lower the heat. Turn off heat and set aside, covered, till the water is absorbed and the bulgur is tender, about 30 minutes. If any water remains, strain the bulgur.
Heat the sesame oil and sauté the mushrooms and onions on mediumlow heat till golden. Add the raisins and pumpkin seeds, stir and remove from the heat. Add to the bulgur and fluff with a fork. Season with salt and pepper before serving.
Recipes adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper- Collins 2004).