Be Merry / The Giving Tree

How to make a sumptuous meal of Tu Bishvat.

The almond tree is a most humble tree. Its size is average, its lifespan (50 years ) is short, its leaves are small and bereft of any special grandeur. True, it blossoms magnificently in captivating hues of pinkish-white, but its blooming time is brief, and furthermore its flowers do not make a particularly large or flavorful contribution to the honey market. The fruit of the almond is likewise modest: it has a hairy and fleshy texture without much flavor. Its gastronomical contribution, if any, is negligible.

The good heart of the almond was discovered by our ancestors, apparently back in prehistoric times. The almond was the most popular and versatile of all seeds and nuts, and has remained so to this day. Generosity is not the almond tree's only quality. Its blossoms appear before its leaves sprout, even before spring has arrived, and before all the other trees display their blossoms anew. Indeed, the almond tree's promptness attests to its industriousness, shakdanut in Hebrew, which is indeed where the tree got its Hebrew name: shaked.

Sweet potato and almond soup - Limor Laniado Tiroche
Limor Laniado Tiroche

The fruit of the almond tree, with a shape resembling a small and skinny apricot, can be eaten fresh only in early springtime, when it is young and its flesh is still tender and slightly sour. In the markets you will find two types. There is the sweet fruit that comes from the domesticated tree, and the bitter one that comes from the wild almond, which contains a toxic substance (amygdalin ) and must therefore be used sparingly - for example, in producing almond liqueur (great for baking ) and bitter almond extract, and for making marzipan dough.

The almond's contribution to Mediterranean cuisines is significant. It has a starring role in many festive dishes and pastries, from couscous Royale, chicken and lamb tagines, and Andalusian soups, to various delicate pastries, marzipans, cakes and other desserts. Eastern-European Jewish cooks traditionally used almonds, imported from Italy and France, in tzimmes (a sweet carrot stew ), and in mandelbrot cookies, to decorate lekach (honey cake ), and in other desserts.

Limor Laniado Tiroche
Limor Laniado Tiroche

Tu Bishvat is next week (beginning on Tuesday evening and until sundown Wednesday ), and there is nothing better than a meal based on almonds to mark Jewish Arbor Day - the New Year of the trees, when the almond tree traditionally blooms. Here are three recipes for the holiday meal: 0a soup, entree, and dessert.

Chicken curry with eggplant & almonds

Serves 6 - 8.

2 pullet chickens or 1 large chicken, rinsed and dried

1 lemon, rinsed

1 large, firm eggplant

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Curry paste:

2 big bunches nana mint leaves (remove stems ), washed and dried (2 + 1/2 packed cups, net weight 100 grams )

2 big bunches cilantro (remove stems ), washed and dried (2 + 1/2 packed cups, net weight 100 grams )

4 whole garlic cloves

2 centimeters ginger root, peeled and sliced into strips (net weight 15 grams )

4 scallions, roughly chopped

1/2 hot green pepper, sliced into rings

juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons ground blanched almonds

2 cups (500 milliliters, or 1 + 1/4 cans ) coconut milk

4 tablespoons raw almonds, unpeeled

Heat an oven to 210 degrees Celsius. Peel the eggplant (leave a few strips of skin ) and chop into large cubes. Transfer to an oven dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, and roast on the top oven rack for 40 minutes, stirring periodically.

In a food processor with a steel blade, combine the mint, cilantro, garlic, ginger, scallions, hot green pepper, lemon juice and fish sauce - pulsing until you get a smooth paste. Add the sugar, black pepper, ground almonds and coconut milk; pulse until all the ingredients are well mixed.

Heat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius. Lay the chicken in an oven-proof pot, inserting the whole lemon inside (if using pullets, half a lemon in each ). Pour the curry into the pot and massage the chicken thoroughly (ladle a bit of the paste into the stomach cavity ). Spread roasted eggplant and almonds around. Cover the pot and roast for 30 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 180 degrees and roast for 90 minutes. Serve with white rice.

Sweet potato & almond soup

Because the vegetables are only cooked briefly in this recipe, the sweet potatoes retain their rich flavor and texture, and do not lose their bright color. The soup has a strong flavor, and a smooth and pleasant consistency. If you feel like surprising people with a white or purple sweet potato soup, you can get those varieties of sweet potatoes at Uri Rabinovich's stall at the Tel Aviv Port farmers' market. To give the soup an Asian twist, you can replace the heavy cream with 1/4 cup of coconut milk, and add a pinch of grated ginger. Serves 6.

2 medium onions, peeled and cut into cubes

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 celery root (net weight 100 grams ), peeled and diced

4 medium sweet potatoes (net weight 850 grams ), peeled and cut into cubes

2 heaped tablespoons whole blanched almonds

bunch of thyme tied with kitchen twine

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

pinch of nutmeg

5 cups boiling water

3 tablespoons heavy cream

For garnish: slivered almonds

In a pot, saute the onions in butter or olive oil until lightly browned. Add the diced celery root; continue sauteeing for 5 more minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, almonds and thyme; saute for 5 minutes. Season, pour in the boiling water, cover the pot and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the bunch of thyme, add the heavy cream, and grind the soup with a stick blender until you get a smooth puree. Serve with slivered almonds that have been dry-roasted in a pan until brown.

Almond & dried fruit cake

This is a dream cake for busy people: a minute of work, a small bowl, and a great taste. It is fat-free, and thus suitable for those who want to watch their figures, and it is parve. You can use a mixture of other nuts instead of almonds (walnuts, pecans, cashews, peeled pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts ), and whatever types of dried fruit you like.

75 grams (1/2 cup ) sifted self-rising flower

Pinch of salt

100 grams ( (1/2 cup ) dark brown sugar

3 eggs

1 tablespoon port wine or Amaretto liqueur

180 grams raw almonds in their skins (1 + 1/3 cups )

350 grams mixed dried fruit (2 heaped tablespoons cranberries, 2 heaped tablespoons raisins, or 7 of the following: pitted prunes, pitted dates, baladi (native-variety ) apricots or figs )

Heat an oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Grease a rectangular loaf pan with a little butter or oil. In a bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar, eggs and wine/liqueur. Add the almonds and dried fruit, and mix lightly.

Bake for 45 minutes. Cool completely before removing the loaf from the pan. The un-sliced cake will stay fresh for three or four days wrapped in plastic film. Slice into slivers with a sharp knife for serving.