Tu B’Shvat

0217cookingFarmers are neither sowing nor reaping right now, so why is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, celebrated in winter?

“The holiday began as a way to calculate the age of trees in order to tax the prior year’s harvest and predict the yield of the coming one,” writes Amelia Saltsman in “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” (Sterling Epicure, $29.95). “The passages in Leviticus are specific: no food is to be harvested during the first three years of the tree’s life, a fruit offering of thanks is to be given in the fourth, and not until the fifth year are we to reap the benefits. Today’s careful farmer will tell you this is sound advice for the health of our orchards, for it allows the tree’s energy to go first to establishing strong roots.”

Tu B’Shvat (the 15th day of the month of Shvat), which falls this year on February 10-11, is celebrated in Israel with picnics and the planting of trees. Since the seventies, the spirit of the holiday has been expanded to include increased ecological awareness, an everyday, not just a holiday, concern. According to aish.com, Israel planted over 260 million trees in the last 50 years and is a world leader in solar energy and water conservation.

“Holiday foods honor the fruits of the earth, tree, and vine,” writes Saltsman, especially the seven species of the bible: figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes (or raisins), wheat and barley. Some communities hold a Tu B’Shvat Seder, a custom established by Kabbalists of the 17th Century, and special haggadim have been written for this purpose.

Wheat and raisins combine with other fruits of the earth in Saltsman’s Roasted Roots. “This warming vegetarian stew is also delicious made with farro, spelt, barley, or quinoa,” she notes. “Take advantage of all the available beautiful colors of carrots and beets.”

The so-called “Mediterranean diet” with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, affords us much opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the earth. Joyce Goldstein, has traveled throughout the Mediterranean and wrote a comprehensive cookbook/guide to the cuisines of this diverse area: “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table” (University of California Press, $39.95).

“There were no good cooks in my Ashkenazi family,” she revealed. “Vegetables were cooked until they were gray. Fortunately for me both my parents worked, so we ate out a lot. I discovered there was really good food out there; I just wasn’t getting it at home.”

Later she lived in Italy and traveled throughout the Mediterranean. “I decided that was the way I wanted to eat for the rest of my life,” she said.

In 1984 Goldstein opened Square One in San Francisco, “the first restaurant in the country that covered all the Mediterranean. I traveled all over the Mediterranean for research. I sought out Jewish neighborhoods in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy, traveled throughout the Mahgreb—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt—and the Arab countries: Iraq Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. These distinct cuisines are often labeled ‘Sephardic,’ but that is a mistake. Each country has its own spice palate. “

Jews living in the Mediterranean had more contact with their gentile neighbors than Ashkenazi Jews did in Eastern Europe, she explained, and adjusted the local recipes according to kosher law. “Geography is destiny. For Ashkenazi Jews in Romania or Russia there was not a great assortment of vegetables and fruits. But in the Mediterranean there is a whole other palate to play with.”


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