Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

Yesterday the sun broke through in all its shining glory after months and months of cold, rainy weather. We knew it was going to be short-lived as more was forecast for later this week. John and I dropped our son off at work, and decided to take full advantage of the respite from nasty weather. We drove to the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to see the increase in water level after the past decade of drought conditions. It did not disappoint.

Just south of Tiberias, we pulled off at our favorite beach. What was once a sweeping expanse of brush, rocks and sand was now completely under water. It even came up to the stone embankment where the picnic tables and campsites were. The stone steps were partially under water. You just have to see!

We’ve been following the rising of the Kinneret water levels over the internet each day, but wanted to actually see the measuring stick at Yardenit (there is also one in Tiberias).This is where the Sea of Galilee flows out to form the Jordan River to the South. Right across the street, I was struck by groups of white-robed masses in the water. It looked like the scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I had to get closer. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come here to be baptized in the Jordan (this is NOT the place where Jesus was immersed. That’s 70 miles downstream in the Samarian desert near Jericho). Anyway, there they were, taking full advantage of the sunny weather doing full immersions. It reminded me of a sort of mass mikveh, the Jewish ritual immersion.

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Pulling into Kibbutz Kinneret to turn around and go home, I saw the sign: Kinneret Dates Factory Story. This was turning into a real tiyuul, which is the Hebrew word for day-trip or field-trip. And just in time for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, which will be celebrated from sunset February 9 – sunset February 10this year.

When I was growing up in America, this minor holiday was relegated to the ‘back 40.’ We didn’t celebrate it much at all. All I knew was that it was a type of Jewish Arbor Day. My mother, the designated “Tree Lady” of our synagogue would call up the congregants to ask them to order trees to be planted in the State of Israel. That was about it. Tu b’Shvat has grown in popularity in Jewish communities throughout the world, but here in Israel, it has been and still is celebrated as an agricultural and ecological holiday with much rejoicing.

In Hebrew, letters and numbers are interchangeable, so “tu” are the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’ (adding up to 16), and Shvat is the name of the Hebrew month – so Tu b’Shvat means Shvat 16. The holiday is not found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but in the Talmud – the oral explanations of the Law. It’s basically the New Year for trees, or the time which trees are planted. There are both physical and spiritual levels to this holiday. Planting trees in the middle of winter is a sign of hope and a way of re-greening the planet. It has connotations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and there are ties to the spiritual Tree of Life.

Historically, in the 1500s, in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria (the same guy who wrote the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi) put together a Tu b’Shvat seder (ordered feast) in which different fruits or nuts are eaten along with 4 cups of wine. There is a beautifully arranged Seder plate with raisins, almonds, pistachios, dried figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and other fruits and nuts. There are special blessings: thanks and praise for G-d’s creation: over His sustenance through the year; for the winds and rain; for the fruits (or nuts) of the tree. After the prayers, nuts and fruit with a hard/inedible shell (klipa) and a soft interior is eaten – the almonds or pistachios; the oranges, pomegranates or bananas. Then one says the blessing over wine and drinks a small amount of red wine. Next, fruits with a soft exterior and hard center is eaten (olives, dates, apricots, persimmons, avocado) followed by a dark pink rosé wine. Next, fruits are consumed which can be eaten whole: figs, pears, berries, apples. And a light pink rosé wine is sipped. After that, the celebrants eat something made with wheat or barley: bread, crackers, or a pulse. Then comes the sips of white wine. All of this is interspersed with spiritual readings from the Scriptures and explanations on how one is to ascend from the purely physical to the emotional to the intellectual to the spiritual. Thank you Rabbi Luria. There are several interesting Tu b’Shvat seder guides on the internet, each with different highlights.

So – we found ourselves in the Land of Fruits and Nuts – literally. The factory store of Kibbutz Kinneret Dates. I visited the Garden of Eden and I can’t wait to go back! In typical Israeli fashion, the first thing we did upon entering was to see a movie on the history of this particular kibbutz and on the date palm. The date palm is one of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel (dates, figs, wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives) and mentioned in the Bible. By the end of the Ottoman Empire and the desolation of the land by both neglect and destruction, every single date palm had disappeared in this land.

In 1908, Kibbutz Kinneret was founded and a pioneer named Ze’ev Ben Zion traveled to Iraq to bring back a truckload of palms – and Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by the Islamists. Both the palm shoots and the new immigrants thrived in their new land, so Ben Zion went out again to bring back 1000 new baby palms – and more refugees. Uri Stoner, from Kibbutz Kinneret, researched and developed different hybrids as well as novel uses for dates. In 1933, the kibbutz factory was founded and a multinational exporting of Israeli dates and date products had begun.

The factory store here has products unique to Israel…and all can be sampled generously. There are friendly (English-speaking)kibbutzniks available to explain all of the products. The date is nature’s candy. Naturally sweet and high in fiber, it gives a quick energy boost, yet is very low on the glycemic index. Minerals and compounds in the date are said to increase fertility and help pregnant women to have easier deliveries. They are very high in antioxidants and can help reduce blood pressure. Dates help maintain bone mass because they are high in calcium and magnesium as well as selenium. They are also rich in iron and fluorine – and essential fatty acids that actually help with hunger-control an weight loss. Yippeeee!!! So for a ‘normal’ person, eating 5-9 dates a day is healthy – more for late term pregnant women (dates are reputed to induce labor).

Who knew there were so many different varieties, flavors and textures among different species of dates? Most people are familiar with the Deglet-Noor and Medjool varieties, as those are the top exports, BUT:

Some are sweet and sticky: the Amari are moist and taste like caramel; the Deri are intense and flavorful- almost like a shot of espresso; the Amari, drier, but packing a sugar punch; our favorite, Hadrawi were soft and flavorful, not too sugary, but like butterscotch. We bought 3 boxes of dates.

And the products available!!!! My favorite date product is silan (see’ lahn), a date syrup/honey. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but I use it in place of other sweeteners now – in cooking and baking, in teas and smoothies. There are different types of date spreads, date candies, date butters, and here, they are all available for sampling. And the prices here are some of the best I’ve seen in the country-

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In addition to date products, there were other products, all organic and made right here in the Galilee. There was carob syrup (which I also use in place of molasses), tehinehs (sesame butter) – so I bought 2 huge jars. I use tehnineh extensively now, including tehnineh and silan on rice crackers. Olive oil, locally produced, bee products, herbs and spices – all from this area.

Add to this the cosmetics line, Shivat, made from the seven species, and I was in absolute heaven!!! We really had a lot of fun, but armed with a couple bags full of goodies and a new cookbook (yay!!!), I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking. So – now for the recipes!

The easiest is the tehnineh spread with silan. Tehineh is much richer in calcium and fiber and lower in sugar than peanut butter, and it is non-allergenic.

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This sesame seed paste is also mixed with the juice of one lemon and a spoon of silan for a lovely salad dressing for chopped cucumbers and tomatoes or for a mixed cabbage and carrot slaw with chopped green onions and walnuts and chopped dates.

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp silan date syrup
  • 4 tsp sweet asian chili sauce
  • juice of a freshly squeezed lemon
  • a dash of chili flakes
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a sprinkling of coarse sea salt

Wrap and roast the sweet potatoes in a 200*C/400*F oven for about an hour. Mix all the ingredients of the sauce (minus the sea salt) with an immersion blender. Score the hot potato and pour the sauce over top. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

FREEKEH STUFFED ONIONS (pareve/vegan) serves 6-8

 

This can be eaten as a hearty lunch or served as a side dish for a Shabbat dinner. Its roots are typically Middle Eastern, most likely Egyptian. Freekeh is a type of durum wheat that is roasted to bring out its nutty flavor. The word is actually Arabic for “rubbed” as the grains are rubbed before roasting. As freekeh might be difficult to find outside this area, bulgur or spelt can be substituted. You can also use brown basmati rice for this one. Because it is pareve (neither milk nor meat) it makes a great accompaniment to any main course.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2-3 whole large white onions
  • 2-3 whole large red/purple onions
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup freaked, bulgur, spelt, farro, or brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed green herbs cut finely (parsley, mint, cilantro, green onion, dill)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup silan date syrup
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the stuffing: Heat olive oil and grain in a saucepan and fry until hot. Do not burn. Add boiling water and salt, Stir well and cover. Lower flame to simmer for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. Gently fluff and fold in mixed herbs and cumin seeds, silan and fruit.

As the stuffing is cooking, peel the onions and slice the tops off. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Wrap in foil and roast about 20 minutes in a 200*C/400*F oven – until soft.  Let cool until able to handle comfortably. Remove the inner part of the onion with your fingers, pulling gently. There should be 2-3 layers of the outer shell left. Chop up the onion that was extracted and add to the stuffing mixture.

Fill each onion with the stuffing mixture. Place in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Sprinkle the onions with salt and pepper. If there is any juice from stuffing mix left behind, pour over onions. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at !70*C/350*F for about 20 minutes. Remove foil so onions can brown and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve hot.

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

Another great recipe – especially for fall/winter. It calls for butternut squash, but you can use any gourd, or a combination thereof and it will be delicious. I especially like seeing smaller pieces of different varieties of gourds for a gorgeous and colorful platter. This is a tasty side dish, but also can be hearty enough as an entree served with a hearty bread and a side salad.  Also, this is an amazing Pesach recipe (one which I plan to use at my Passover seder this year)-

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 gourds (butternut squash), halved, seeds removed
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper
  • ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp silan
  • 2 sheets of matzah
  • 2 more tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 190*C/375*F. Drizzle gourd halves with olive oil and silan , and sprinkle with salt, pepper and ground cinnamon. Roast for 40 minutes. Can cover with foil lightly, if it starts to brown too much.

For crumbly topping: heat a frying pan with the olive oil. Add the matzah pieces and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly to glaze and brown. Add garlic , salt and pepper and a  small amount of cinnamon at the very end. Remove from flame, and add the chopped parsley.

Arrange the hot gourd pieces on a platter and spoon the crumble over top. Drizzle with more silan and serve hot.

AMAZING I CAN’T STOP EATING PUFFED RICE SNACKS!                                                  (                                                    (vegan/pareve)  

I made these yesterday and we just can’t stop sneaking them. Really rich, and decadent, yet I tell myself they’re healthy because of the tehnineh, silan. cocoa super-food combo. It makes me feel better about pigging out. But. seriously who can resist? I’m not paying $7 to $9 for a small box of Kelloggs Rice Crispies ….. when I CAN find them here! So we found a pretty lame puffy rice flakes for a substitute. I highly recommend the Rice Crispies if they are available in your area- just sayin.They can be formed into bite sized balls or put in a wax-paper lined baking dish and cut into squares. I did both. The best part is that they are super easy to make and require no baking or refrigeration.

*****OK, not as an affront to anybody but you hear the most amazing things living here. This is a true(?) story about John the Baptist. In the New Testament, John the Baptizer is a radical hermit preaching about the importance of being a B’aal Tshuva (repentant sinner who comes back to G-d) and performing ritual immersions/mikveh in the Jordan River. He announces the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah. Anyway, in art he’s always pictured wearing a rough camel hair tunic tied with a thick rope. This ascetic is famed for his diet of eating locusts and honey. But it was a MISTRANSLATION from the Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the English of the King James Bible in the early 1700’s. The honey was most likely a date syrup like silan. And the carob tree (kheeroov) was also known as the locust bean in England. The ground carob beans are similar to cocoa powder, but much higher in protein and in antioxidants. Instead of eating yucky insects like a madman, John was actually consuming a fudgy, delicious superfood paste. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but I found it fascinating!

For those Christians who celebrate the feast days of favorite saints, this is a great recipe to make with young kids in honor of John the Baptizer. For my Jewish friends, it’s a lovely treat for Tu b’Shvat.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup tehineh
  • 1/2 cup silan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup carob powder or cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
  • 4 tsp silan
  • 3 cups crisped rice cereal
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) or ground coconut

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Grease your hands with a little canola or coconut oil. Form about a tablespoon of the mixture into golfball sized balls. Or spread out in a wax-paper lined baking dish. Let set for a half hour, if you can resist the temptation to eat before then. Cut the chocolate rice mix into brownie-sized bars. Enjoy!!!!

 

 

 

 

The Miracle of the Oil

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The mountains and valleys of the Galilee region of Israel are dotted with groves and groves of olive trees. They are everywhere! These are some of the world’s oldest olive trees; some of the larger ones are over 2000 years old! Our olive harvesting and pressing season has just ended. The luscious, ripe fruits are gathered by hand after the second rain of the year, when the olives have absorbed the rains and have grown swollen and fat. Driving along the Galilee roads, one can see entire families gathering the olives using the “ancient method” of spreading tarps and blankets below the trees and knocking the olives down with sticks. Things have not changed much over the past 3000 years.

The olives are gathered in huge sacs and buckets and taken to be pressed within hours of harvest to capture their freshest flavors.  There is an Arabic saying here: “From the tree to the stone.”  Israel is a leading producer of olive oil- third only to Greece and Spain – producing about 19,500 tons each year of this liquid gold. There are over 120 olive presses in the Galilee and Golan Heights, most owned and operated by the local Druze communities. The techniques used in extracting the precious oil range from the ancient stone ground to Ottoman era press to higher-tech machinery.

Some olive are taken to press. Others are cured for future use. Eating-olives must be cured first. Never eat a “raw” olive off the tree. It contains tannins which are slightly poisonous and can make you quite sick. There are as many opinions here on curing olives as there are people. Most have their own secret and traditional recipes, but all use either a salt-brine method, citrus juice or a vinegar solution. To this solution, can be added any combination of olive leaves, bay leaves, various herbs, hot peppers, citrus and citrus peels, pepper berries, garlic, and various other herbs and spices. This is part of what makes olive tasting here so special. And there are so many different varieties! Who knew????

EVOO (Extra virgin olive oil) is big business in Israel, with boutique oil shops popping up everywhere in addition to the larger production houses. The first press yields the virgin oil. Cold press is best. “Extra” means lower acidity, which for me, is important. The Israeli olives tend to be a little more assertive and pungent, although there are some delicious fruity and buttery varieties. Everyone has a personal preference. It’s not a matter of one type of olive over another, but the process of how the oil is made. And Israel makes some of the best. I buy 4 2-liter cans of a local olive oil made in neighboring Yodfat. I find it to be the best for pouring over salads and for dipping. It lasts us about a year if I’m very frugal. Like several other Israeli olive oils, Yodfat Oil has won coveted awards at the TerraOlivo International Olive Oil Competition. And each beautiful tin costs me 80 shekels, which is about $23. For cooking, my favorite oil – it’s smooth and delicious and stronger than the boutique variety – is Zeta. I used to buy this in California as it is exported to the U.S. (This is a play on words as the Hebrew for olive is zayeet). I can find a liter bottle on sale at the local supermarket for about $6.

Olives are one of the Seven Species of Israel (shiva a’minim), which elevates them to an almost holy status here. Extra virgin oil had holy uses in ancient times. It was used to anoint priests and kings. The golden liquid was used as a healing unguent. It was also used to light the sacred menorah burning in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Part of the Chanukah story is the miracle of the oil. After the Maccabees won the battle for Israel’s independence from the Greeks in about 160 B.C., the Temple was found to be in shambles. Totally desecrated with pigs running loose and sacred objects looted and destroyed. At its Rededication, there was only enough pure olive oil to keep the menorah lit for a day, but it miraculously lasted eight days. Thus we commemorate this by burning pure oil in our chanukkiyah, our Chanukah menorah. We also eat lots of fried foods on this upcoming holiday.

Held in high esteem as a superfruit for its health benefits, these little gems are not only used in foods. Dr. Ziad Dabour, a Druze man from the Upper Galil village of Beit Jann, is a specialist in pharmacology. Since childhood he has studied traditional methods of using the local plants for medicinal purposes. After serving for years as the Chief Pharmacist for the IDF, Dr. Dabour has spent his “retirement” in the demo-cosmetics industry. Tours are available at the Dabour Cosmetics Factory, and you can purchase his organic facial, body and hair care products using local olive oil.

The Tivon-based cosmetic company, Lavido specialists in organic beauty products grown in their own gardens in nearby Nahalal. the plants and herbs are blended with the oil from the Galilee’s olive trees growing in the fields surrounding their small factory. Lavido is my favorite Israeli cosmetic company. Their products are redolent of lavender, roses, mint, rosemary, lemongrass and pomegranate. I love their hand and foot creams.

For a last minute holiday idea – why not put together an olive and olive oil tasting? So easy. Grab an assortment of hearty whole grain breads and fluffy pita. Lay out bowls of different varieties of olives: kalamatas, green olives, black olives, olives stuffed with nuts, garlic, chilies or citrus. On a wooden board, place varieties of cubed cheeses. Feta is especially good with EVOO. But also cubed manchego, grana-padano, some hard cheeses and a brie or cambozola to round out the taste. Add some fresh grapes, pomegranate arils, and cut up veggie sticks. Maybe an assortment of crackers. Don’t forget little bowls of olive oil with the bottles behind them so keep track/rate favorites. Just add a few bottles of red and white wines, put on some festive holiday music, and you have the makings of one great party!

For lovely, personal gifts or hostess presents, take some decorative clear bottles (in the States, available at craft stores as well as Pier One, and World Market, Homegoods, Marshalls, TJMaxx and Homesense). Fill about 3/4 of the way with EVOO. Add sprigs of fresh herbs – rosemary, garlic and peppercorns; thyme and oregano; lemon peel and sea salt; dried chilies. Attach a pour spout and tie the neck with brightly colored baker’s twine or raffia with a sprig of the herbs. A thoughtful present indeed – an easy, too.

Another delicious recipe is to take 4 whole garlic bulbs. Lice the top off each, exposing the garlic. Place in a baking dish and you EVOO over the top to almost submerge the garlic. Bake for 20 minutes at 300*F/140*C.  The garlic will come out soft and sweet, great for spreading on bread directly. Bottle the oil for cooking and drizzling over potatoes, sweet potatoes, and roasted veggies. Total yum!

Salad dressings are easy to make up fresh. Play around with the ingredients and amounts used. I take about 1/3 part EVOO, an acid like lemon juice or vinegar (white, balsamic, wine, or cider) and assorted spices and herbs, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. About !/3 part water. Shake and voila!

For homemade beauty – try making a scrub for a special home spa day. So simple! Just take a small jar and add either white or brown sugar or course sea salt. Pour olive oil over the top and add a few drops of essential oil to the batch. I love fresh lemon juice and a bit of rosemary in my scrub. images-5.jpegEnjoy! Happy holidays….

Galil Spring

In the weeks before my trip to the States, the long-awaited springtime was in full bloom in the North of Israel. We begin praying for much needed rain at the fall feast of Sukkot and continue with our daily petition for precipitation until Pesach.

G-d did not disappoint, as we had a series of ground drenching rains in March. The dried-out brown landscape, desolate for a season, sprang to life in the full splendor of nature. All of the Galilee was an Irish green, with flowers everywhere. We took full advantage of the mild weather, frequenting neighborhood parks and finding new trails to hike within a couple miles from our house.

Israel prides itself on well-marked well-kept nature trails. They are everywhere! And each neighborhood has a lovely park. We first moved to Israel three years ago- and the land was awash in fields of wildflowers as if to celebrate our arrival. I still love to pick big bouquets for a table and to put in cases all around the house.

Here, cyclamens I used to buy in California, grow wild in meadows and between rocks- beautiful reds, pinks, white and fuschia. The air is redolent with the scent of sages, wild broom, lavender and rosemary which grows everywhere. We have wild irises, daisies, lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, anemones, sweet peas, and countless other species.

It is not altogether uncommon to see whole families picnicking in an olive grove or citrus orchard. Couples share bottles of wine on blankets in the park. The gentle breezes and buzzing of the bees mix with chirping of birdsongs. Regional and national parks are full of hikers and this is the season to visit the country’s wildlife reserves and organic farms.

The Galil Spring is a time of mild temperatures and unsurpassed beauty. Despite the building frenzy prevalent up and down the coast and in the center of the country, our area is still widely open and uninhabited. It remains a favorite destination for those escaping the cities whether it’s hiking or rafting down the Jordan River, or just enjoying a meal alfresco in a local park. Nothing like Israel this time of year!