Five months ago I moved from downtown Brooklyn to a farm in a small town on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, population approximately four Jews (read: not enough Jews to support a local deli or even a Zomick’s presence at the town Target). Having lived in or near a city for my entire life, it didn’t occur to me that a town could exist without a pastrami sandwich or a place to get a bagel. But here, there is not a matzo ball in sight.
Celebrating my Jewishness in a sea of Scandinavians (and Midwesterners) has been a wild and rewarding adventure.
By my bedside at any given time, I have two or three books on rotation. Currently one of those books is Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach. The main idea is simple, but often overlooked: good food comes from good ingredients. In today’s world, how many of us know to store an onion, or a potato, a peach, or a pear? Do we know when fruits ripen, or even when they are in season? Can we tell when they are not, now that strawberries are always a bold, eye-popping red and peaches always a fuzzy pink? And even if the ingredient is good, which variety of pear is the best? Do we know how to core that pear? Poach it?
A practical guide to buying and cooking produce, revealing both the art and science of cooking, is what Parsons has written. And in light of Tu b’Shvat last week, the topic is natural, and easy, as we wind down. With the Jewish Arbor Day having coming and gone. I want to suggest that the holiday continue. In looking at what makes good cooking, we need to look at both the ingredients in order to understand the various ways to choose, store, and prepare them, as well as the issues that surround produce in today’s markets.
Pastrami, knishes and smoked fish found their way into Serious Eats’ roundup of can’t-miss NYC food institutions. [Serious Eats]
Try a special babka recipe for Tu B’Shvat. [Kosher Eye]
Did you know Bone Suckin’ Sauce is kosher? The company debuts two new seasoning rubs. [Kosher Nexus]
Michael Solomonov talks about paying homage at Zahav to his brother, who died serving in the IDF. [Boston Globe]
Love to Instagram everything you eat? Watch out — some restaurants are banning tableside photography. [Epicurious]
Your bubbe knows cabbage is awesome. Ten more recipes take this humble winter vegetable beyond borscht. [The Kitchn]
Every time I bite into a slice of noodle kugel, I am reminded of another baked pasta dish: frisinsal, an unusual, savory and just slightly sweet recipe that we make back home in Venice around Tu B’shvat (the New year of Trees).
For the Jews of Northern Italy, no recipe recalls the past as much as the frisinsal. The baked pasta dish consists of layers of fresh noodles tossed in goose fat (or juice from a roast), with the addition of pine nuts, raisins, and goose or beef sausage or goose “prosciutto.” It is an amalgam of flavors and culinary traditions, much like the Jewish community of the area which blends Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Italki (Italian Jewry) customs.
Some traditional dishes, such as the local hamin (once the warm course for the Shabbat lunch), have virtually disappeared from our modern tables but for some reason, frisinal still brings the community together.
It’s also known by the name Ruota del Faraone, or “Pharaoh’s Wheel,” a reference to this week’s Torah part which tells the story of Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Italian Jews will tell you that the pasta bake is shaped in a circle to resemble the wheels of Pharaoh’s chariots, that the noodles are the waves of the seas, the pine nuts the heads of the Egyptian horses, and the raisins or pieces of sausage the Egyptian warriors, being submerged by the unexpected waves.
As we prepare for Tu B’Shvat, I can’t help but grow more introspective. Over the past century, Tu B’Shvat has evolved into a primarily mystical food holiday incorporating a Kabbalistic seder, dating back to 16th century Tzfat.
At the center of our Torah lies our relationship to the natural world. In our Biblical stories, we are part of the natural world —and set apart from it. God gave us the ability to name the creatures that roamed the Earth and we are God’s own creation. The first human being took the name Adam, for it was from the Adamah (earth) that he was created. God gave us a garden to cultivate, while living within that garden. We are natural and social creatures, living among the swarms of life and reaching beyond it through the study of Torah
Growing up in the New York, Tu B’Shvat was one of the Jewish holidays that slipped under the radar. Living in Israel, I can’t step into a grocery store this time of year and not know what holiday it is. Dried fruits and nuts are piled high, serving as a pleasant reminder that it is Rosh Hashanah La’Lanot, or the New Year for trees.
Although I don’t attend a Tu B’shvat seder (a tradition of the Kabbalistic communities here), I always mark the holiday by incorporating as many dried fruits and nuts as possible into my meals for the day. I combine them to make a trail mix suitable for an afternoon snack or outdoor hike, or toast them with oats for granola to enjoy with my morning yogurt. For dinner, I take a cue from North African tagines by braising dried fruits along with chicken or beef that I serve alongside couscous and a salad topped with nuts.
But my favorite Tu B’Shvat recipe is the one for these dried fruit and nut cookies, which I learned from my friend and colleague Orly Ziv of Tel Aviv-based Cook in Israel, which offers culinary tours and cooking classes. She teaches her students to makes these cookies, which are chock full of dried fruits and nuts (recipe below). Somewhere between biscotti and granola bars, these chewy, lightly crispy cookies are sweet enough to feel like a treat, healthy enough to serve as a nice breakfast, and are perfect for Tu B’Shvat.
Figs have long held my fascination. I grew up begging my mother for one more Fig Newton. Later, I had to stop myself from eating an entire container or bag of dried figs that my parents bought as a special treat. I often had to jockey with my dad for the last one.
In college, as part of a course called “The Palestinian-Israeli Confrontation” with Brandeis Univeristy Prof. Gordon Fellman, I read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “My Father and the Fig Tree.” The poem was about the idea of home, and how a juicy, ripe fig was home to the narrator’s father. The poem resonated with me on many levels, including wondering how a fruit could call to you and bring you peace.
Tu B’Shvat is one of 4 new years in Jewish Tradition. Celebrated on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, this holiday gives us a chance to think about and celebrate the earth. Beginning with the rabbis in the 15th century, it has become a tradition to honor Tu B’Shvat with a Tu B’shvat seder. Below are the top 10 ways you can celebrate Tu B’Shvat this year in a healthy and sustainable way. To find out more information and suggestions from Hazon for Tu B’Shvat, visit the Hazon Tu B’Shvat Resource Page.
1) Go Out and Plant!
Tu B’Shvat is a great time to start your garden, and gives you sufficient time start growing so that you can use it during Passover! Take the time during this holiday to plant with your family and you can experience picking and eating your very own homegrown fruits and veggies. No space for an outdoor garden? There are plenty of ways to grow veggies and plants in an indoor garden. Check out ways to start your indoor garden from a gardening expert!
Editor’s Note: The Beet-Eating Heeb is the nom de plume of Jeffrey Cohan, a former journalist in Forest Hills, PA. He also blogs about Judaism and veganism on his own website.
A divinity student from a Presbyterian seminary approached The Beet-Eating Heeb recently and made a surprising comment.
“I’m so impressed,” he said, “with the emphasis that Judaism places on treating animals with compassion.”
The Beet-Eating Heeb didn’t know whether to kvell or to cry.
Kvell, because all levels of Jewish texts, from the Torah on down, express incredible sensitivity for the welfare of animals. The divinity student knew something about Judaism – on paper.
Cry, because concern for animals is almost totally absent from Jewish communal discourse, while literally billions of farm animals are suffering in abysmal conditions.
It is therefore, in the spirit of our Prophetic tradition, that a creative effort has arisen to rouse us from our chilling complacency and to focus attention on Judaism’s teachings about animals: Concerned Jews in Israel and the United States are trying to resurrect and reframe the ancient but long-forgotten holiday of Rosh Hashanah La B’Heimot, or New Year for Animals.
In cities across the globe this month, Jewish communities are celebrating Tu B’Shvat. One of the types of celebrations is the mystical Tu B’Shvat seder. It started in the 16th century, by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who took the New Year of the Trees and gave it an other-worldly spin. Through the ritual of the Tu B’Shvat seder, the Jew celebrates the fecundity and blooming of the trees as a totem for spiritual perfection. Basically, the seder is a ritual that leads the Jew through four divine worlds culminating in the world of emanation—the world of the spirit which is perfect and holy. Here we eat fruits that are fleshy and without pits, teaching that in the world of emanation, all is perfect and sweet. It’s lovely and spiritual, and totally backwards. Let me explain.
The problem with the totemic thinking of Tu B’Shvat is that it ignores the underlying structure of the human-eco balance on which this day relies. Luria’s seder is a ritual journey that elevates the soul up and away from the physical to the metaphysical, from the body to the spirit, from this world to the world beyond. Notice, the subtext: the world we live in is nothing but a beginning—a way station to the real world of God’s essence felt in the undiminished mystical union. Understood this way, the purpose of the seder is to elevate ourselves away from the physical, turning our backs on this world, and on our responsibility for it, for a chance at a mystical union with God.
From Tu B’Shvat (Jewish Arbor Day), we may develop a clearer understanding that the well being of trees is intimately connected to the well being of all creation. From the point of view of practical Jewish philosophy and everyday living, the “Tree of Life” symbolizes the wisdom of the Torah: “Man is like a tree in the field (Deut. 20:19).” By extension, there is a remarkable degree of similarity between a person’s physical development — even his/her spiritual development, and that of a tree. We, too, have roots, which are the equivalent of our spiritual selves that one can’t see, possess a trunk as the body manifested in our physical selves, and produce fruit- our children.
Traditionally, Kabbalists, the ancient mystic Rabbis who deciphered the esoteric teachings of Judaism, use the tree metaphor to understand God’s relationship to the spiritual and physical worlds. According to Kabbalist thought, we attain a state of wholeness only when — like a tree — we bear fruit that affects our friends and neighbors in such a manner that they, too, are inspired to fulfill the purpose of their creation.
The date palm is tall and majestic. The olive tree locks oil in its plentiful fruit that anoints kings. The bountiful orange trees were the crown jewels of early Zionism. Yet it is the humble almond tree that grabs our attention when we celebrate the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shvat.
According to the Jewish calendar, the new year for trees begins on the 15th of the month of Av, or February 8th this year. Harkening back to the roots of Judaism which were tied to the agricultural cycles of the land of Israel, the holiday comes just as winter in the land of Israel looses its hold. Winter, with the heavy rains and the shortened days, can feel dreary and relentless. But early in the spring, the extraordinary white and pink blossoms of the almond tree dot the landscape, announcing the beginning of a new season, making almonds the perfect food to eat on Tu B’Shvat.
It’s coming up on Tu B’Shvat, and for many, the holiday poses a dilemma. On the one hand, the kabbalistic roots of the holiday invite us to connect to the land of Israel through its food. Many of the symbolic foods at Tu B’Shvat seders are among the Seven Species of crops mentioned in Deuteronomy that have grown in the land of Israel since ancient times. Anyone who has bitten into a juicy pomegranate, or tasted perfect techina sauce, knows the experience of being transported to another world by food. (*Pop Quiz time: Seven Species include: Barley, Wheat, Pomegranates, Dates, Figs, Olives and Grapes).
And yet. Here we are, in the dead of winter, trying to eat locally (and wondering exactly what that means), live in harmony with the seasons, pay attention to the world around us. For many in the United States, Israel’s flora is decidedly exotic and not available at your local farmer’s market. What then are we to do?
Not in the way you might think—I wasn’t standing over a cutting board, knife in hand, sobbing my way through an extended dicing activity. The onions that made me cry were whole, bagged and stacked about 5 feet high, in a small village in Western Senegal, where I was travelling with American Jewish World Service.
I cried because of the story behind this stack of onions, a story of thwarted ambition, injustice, and our broken global food system. Working with a local Non-Governmental Organization called GREEN Senegal, farmers from this village had implemented new farming practices, such as drip irrigation that vastly improved their efficiency and productivity. With much less time and effort, they had increased the quantity and quality of their onion crop, and were ready to bring their goods to market. In addition to the economic gain the villagers hoped to see through their efforts, the new efficiencies had the side benefits of allowing children to spend more time in school, rather than in the fields helping with the harvest, and mothers to spend more time in the home caring for their families.
“This is not your average garden,” chuckles Yvette Parnell as we survey the former Hayes Valley parking lot that has been transformed into the Growing Home Community Garden on a stunningly clear January afternoon.
Indeed, a full tour and history of the vibrantly decorated urban garden reveals the magic contained not only in its lush expanse of edible crops, perennials, and herbs, but in its transformative effects on the homeless and housed San Franciscans who have joined forces to create this open green space in the heart of the city for all to enjoy.
The vision for the Growing Home Community Garden (GHCG), located at 250 Octavia Street in San Francisco, sprouted two years ago from Judith Klein, founding director of Project Homeless Connect a program which has connected over 27,000 homeless individuals with essential services since its inception in 2004. The intention of the garden was to offer a safe haven for people to get off the street, or out of shelters for a bit, and have the opportunity to experience the responsibility and nurturing involved in growing edible plants from scratch. Many, but by no means are all of the volunteer members homeless, in shelters, or formerly homeless. They meet weekly over communal meals to discuss different goals for the garden, and to share the work involved in maintaining an ambitious array of crops, including kale, cauliflower, berries, apples, carrots, passion fruit, and six different kinds of tomatoes. To date, over 285 people, including neighbors, students, artists and community members have participated in the garden’s efforts.
It was the first day where the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing, and I was seriously feeling January. Until I picked up my mail…and found a Johnny’s seed catalog. Pages and pages of beautiful vegetables leapt out at me, warming my heart if not my blistered hands.
The night before, I had volunteered at my CSA Winter share pick up. My job was to weigh out the carrots for everyone, ten pounds per share. That’s a nearly-full grocery bag of carrots. Our farmer had delivered 12 crates of purple, orange and yellow carrots that had been harvested sometime this fall, and held in storage for the winter. Without the steady mist of a supermarket delivery shelf, the carrots looked a little pallid (kind of like we all do in winter). They are nevertheless sweet and delicious, but a stark contrast to the vivid hues of the seed catalog, and the real live fresh-harvested crops they represent. In winter, when the pale browns and beige of sweet potatoes, turnips, potatoes and carrots fill the store room, we start dreaming of summer harvest…and planning for it.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that those of us living outside the land of Israel (or in an otherwise distant place from wheat and barley cultivation) might use the Omer as a time to “count down” to the harvest of another more familiar crop that grows closer to home. What will you be looking forward to seeing at the farmer’s market? What crops are growing on a field somewhere, getting ready for harvest right around the waxing summer moon?
I decided to take my Omer countdown to the next level: I planted a garden right after Pesach, and harvested my first arugula right before Shavuot.
Gardening and farming is an ongoing process, a constant reparation of previous damages, and preparation for future growth. Cutting down what has died, turning under and planting anew. Given this cycle, it’s interesting that we still mark a time of “first fruits” right around Shavuot. When does the cycle actually start? Is it when crops are sown, or when the ground is prepared in early spring, or perhaps when the compost is spread the fall before? Tilth, that essential quality of organic soil that describes its health and composition, is built up over decades. Each first fruit is but a preparation for the next and the next.
Early spring is a magical time for maple sugar makers in the Northeast. After three months of cold temperatures, quiet mornings and early evenings, the awakening of the natural world is ever so apparent now. The warm March sunlight melts the snowpack and maple sap begins to flow from the trees.
Preparations for the maple harvest on our farm in southwest New Hampshire, started a month ago, around Tu B’Shvat. Although we were celebrating the birth of our natural world with four feet of snow underfoot, one could still sense that below the snow things were awakening. We started tapping maple trees around the end of Shevat until the beginning of Adar, near the beginning of March. Tapping the trees involves snowshoeing into the woods, pulling a sled full of buckets, lids, spiles (an iron spigot that is driven into the tree), hammers and drills. When we approach our first sugar maple tree, we take a moment to give thanks for arriving at this moment in time. We take turns drilling the hole into the tree, hammering the spile into a hole and hanging a bucket off the spile. We pay close attention to where previous years’ taps were set, being careful not to tap too close and injure the tree. This year our family put out about fifty taps, contributing to the 600 total in our community. We are always amazed by the beauty of the trees and the miracle of maple sugar.
Earlier this month I hosted a Tu B’shvat gathering for our havurah focused on the shivat haminim — a seven species — “deconstructed” seder. With 25 kids, we opted for heavy on the deconstructed, light on the seder and decided to have a potluck where each family brought a dish incorporating one or more species of Israel. Ideas, recipes and questions about the ingredients flew back and forth on Twitter and Facebook prior to the gathering. For many, this was a new concept and people wanted to know: What are these items? Where does the Torah make reference to them? Which of these are locally grown here in Georgia? What in the world is date honey, and did they even cultivate bees in Ancient Israel?
If every food has a story, every meal can be an opportunity for reinterpreting and retelling that story in a culinary form of midrash. In a very literal sense, midrash is a reinterpretation of Jewish text — both biblical narrative and legal passages. In a similar way, modern Jewish cooks and chefs are looking at traditional ingredients, dishes and recipes and reinterpreting them to fit more contemporary values, tastes and regional influences. In our Jewish tradition, the Passover seder is the most literal form of mealtime storytelling, but Shabbat, holiday and daily meals can also spark investigation, interpretation and retelling.
Some Jews will celebrate this Tu B’Shvat, by blessing and eating different kinds of fruits — paying attention to their different textures and tastes, by eating the Seven Species of grains and fruits of Israel or seven local foods and by reciting or singing a string of passages from Jewish and other texts as part of a seder.
In so doing, we turn the “outside” recurring patterns of nature into something we feel both subjectively and physically as new. But where did we get this idea to celebrate Tu B’Shvat with a seder and with the seven species? The Passover Haggadah is an influence, of course, and there are other precedents for the Jewish practice of reading and eating. But the particular form of most contemporary Tu B’Shvat seders, with their focus on blessing, eating, and talking about fruits and what they symbolize, is modeled after a mystical manual, ”Pri Etz Hadar,” [“The Fruit of the Goodly Tree”], first printed in Venice in 1728 as part of the “Hemdat Yamim”, which was heavily influenced by the kabbalists of Safed. Some Ashkenazic authorities condemned the text as Sabbatian propaganda. Until recently, it was circulated and published primarily by Sefardim.