Tu B'Shevat, the New Year of Trees, is observed on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, this year on Jan. 22. It's the celebration of a new season -- a time when the days begin to get longer and the nights become shorter.
In Israel, winter rains have now ended. Trees that have been dormant begin to absorb moisture from the soil, and a new cycle of growth begins. To mark the holiday, children go to the fields to plant saplings.
Jews all over the world will celebrate the New Year of Trees. There are many interpretations of the Tu B'Shevat seder, but all revolve around fruit and wine. On the table are dishes of fresh and dried fruits. The custom of eating dried fruits and nuts goes back to the 16th century, when in Eastern Europe and many areas of the Diaspora, fresh fruits were available only in the summer.
Ashkenazi Jews serve 15 different kinds of fresh and dried fruit and nuts; Sephardic Jews may have many more (for them, this is the "Feast of Fruits"). Fruits are cut into little pieces for tasting, and during the seder, fruit and nuts are sampled between selected readings. Carob -- the long, leathery pods from the carob tree -- is also served. The Kabbalists believed that chewing the pods to release the sweet pulp would increase the divine energy.
Four glasses of wine or fruit juice are drunk -- the red and white poured into clear carafes to show off their color. The first cup poured and drunk is white wine, symbolizing winter, with its rain and cold dark nights. The second glass is white wine, with a small amount of red added to symbolize the beginning of spring. A third glass is one-third white and two-thirds red, symbolic of summer and a harmonious world. The fourth and last glass is completely red.
There are various interpretations for this, including a bounteous harvest, the heat of the sun, and the fertility of an abundant yield of fruit/nuts from the trees.
As for dishes served, anything goes, as long as one of the ingredients is fruit -- dried or fresh.
Golden Dried-Fruit Compote
2 cups dried apple rings
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup golden raisins
11/2 cups cold spiced tea (such as Constant Comment)
1 Tbsp. honey or to taste
2-3 thin slices fresh ginger root
1/2 cup canned crushed pineapple, undrained
Place the apple rings, apricots, cranberries and raisins in a pot with the tea, honey and ginger root.
Cover and bring to simmer over low heat. Continue simmering for 15 minutes.
Stir in the pineapple. Add a little more honey to taste.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 231; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 58 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 28 mg.
Roast Chicken Stuffed With Almonds, Raisins and Rice
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup medium or long-grain brown rice
1 cup water
2 tsps. cinnamon
2 tsps. grated fresh ginger
1/3 cup roasted slivered almonds
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, packed
1/4 tsp. lemon-pepper seasoning or to taste
31/2 to 4 lb. roaster chicken
freshly ground pepper to sprinkle
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add the onion and celery.
Sauté until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the rice and sauté 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Stir in the water, cinnamon and ginger. Reduce heat to low. Cover and bring to simmer.
Continue cooking for 15 minutes, or until rice is just tender and liquid is absorbed.
Fluff rice with a fork and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the almonds, raisins and parsley. Season to taste with lemon-pepper seasoning. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Rub the chicken with remaining oil. Sprinkle with pepper.
Spoon the stuffing into the chicken cavity; do not pack! Extra stuffing may be baked separately in 350° oven until nicely browned.
Set the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast for 11/4 hours, or until juices run clear when a skewer is inserted into thickest part of the thigh.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 715; protein, 46 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 48 g; cholesterol, 216 mg; sodium, 220 mg.
North African Couscous
1 package (6 oz.) roasted pine-nut couscous (such as Near East)
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 Tbsp. tomato purée
2 tsps. ground cumin
1/4 cup shredded fresh mint leaves or 11/2 Tbsps. dried
1/2 cup diced pitted dates
Prepare the couscous according to package directions, substituting olive oil for the tablespoon of vegetable oil.
Stir in the tomato purée, cumin and mint. Fluff with a fork.
Lightly fold in the dates.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 183; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 31 g; fat, 6 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 237 mg.
Lettuce Wedges With Berry Vinaigrette and Sunflower Seeds
For the Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. parsley sprigs, packed
3 Tbsps. frozen sweetened strawberries, thawed
1/2 cup olive oil
6 wedges iceberg lettuce
3-4 Tbsps. sunflower seeds
In the blender, whirl together all the vinaigrette ingredients except the oil. Gradually add the oil while the machine is running, blending until thickened.
To assemble, pour about 3 tablespoonfuls of vinaigrette over the top each lettuce wedge.
Sprinkle with sunflower seeds. Pass any remaining vinaigrette in a pitcher.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 204; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 4 g; fat, 21 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 261 mg.
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup dried flaked coconut
1 cup farina
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup canned mango nectar
2 Tbsps. grated lemon rind
2 tsps. (rounded) baking powder
1/2 cup diced fresh mango
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
finely chopped pistachios to garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spray a 13x9x2-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the sugar, oil, coconut, farina, flour, mango juice, eggs, grated lemon rind and baking powder. Stir in diced mango.
Pour into the prepared baking pan.
Bake for 50 minutes, or until firm in center. Cool slightly before cutting into squares or diamond shapes.
For the Syrup: Cut the lemons and squeeze the juice. Save the lemon halves.
In a small, heavy saucepan, mix the sugar, water, lemon juice, adding the saved lemon halves.
Bring to boil over medium high heat.
Continue cooking for 10 minutes, or until mixture is syrupy.
Remove the lemon halves.
Pour the syrup over the cake, straining through a sieve to remove any seeds.
Garnish cake with the pistachios (optional).
Makes 36 squares.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 177; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 26 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 35 mg; sodium, 50 mg.
Spiced Fruit Tea
6 cups brewed fruit-flavored tea
1 cup apple juice
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 piece (1-inch) fresh ginger root
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
4-5 black peppercorns
honey or brown sugar
Pour the tea and apple juice into a saucepan.
Add the cloves, ginger root, cinnamon stick, coriander and peppercorns.
Bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes longer.
Strain through a sieve.
Stir in honey or brown sugar to taste.
Serve in heatproof glasses or tea cups.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 19; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 1 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, author of the recent Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.