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What We Talk About When We Talk About Trees

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.

Last week, Richard Schwartz, President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, wrote an article that calls on us to celebrate Tu b’Shvat by raising awareness of environmental crises, and sustainability. In many ways we do this – we center our meal around fruits and nuts, and we plant trees. Both good things. Tu b’Shvat is an ideal time not only because it is so vegan-friendly, but also because it falls in the middle of our winter, showing us how easy it is to get all the nutrients we need, even now. As Schwartz points out, time is running out, so let’s extend the spirit of Tu b’Shvat straight to Purim and beyond. Climate change may spiral out of control unless we make changes to our lifestyle. It has already been seven years since the UN FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” came out, indicating that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases in CO2 equivalents than those emitted by the combination of all cars, planes, ships, and other means of transportation worldwide. The evidence is clear with natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, our ecological problems are literally in the middle of our cities – this is the ideal time. Simply put: better food, better climate.

In light of tikkun olam, a very clear step to take is reducing consumption of meat. In rediscovering Tu b’Shvat, let’s celebrate not only God’s bounty and the environment, but our daily role in it. The holiday calls on us to eat, and slowly enjoy in detail, the nuts, fruits, and vegetables of the land. To do so with more frequency is consistent with basic Jewish teachings that help us to repair the world. “Which is all to say that there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature.”It’s somehow beyond us, but also simple and beautiful.

I think, perhaps, that what we talk about when we talk about trees is a collection of seemingly overwhelming facts: who, where, what, when, how, and why for every item, every process. Amidst this, the power we have begins to feel elusive and the language we use, inadequate. But in practice, it is not. The connections between the world we live in and the foods we consume are not plainly stated, but they are also not elusive. You can see it even in a single piece of fruit. Parsons’ writes: “Fruits and vegetables are not manufactured items that remain throughout their shelf life. They age and change just like the rest of us. Some of them even improve. Fruits such as peaches, tomatoes and some melons will actually finish ripening after they’ve been harvested – as long as you treat them right.” It’s a beautiful thought, knowing each product, its individual properties – engaging with the various natures of ourselves through our food.

Below are two slightly modified recipes: one traditional Tu b’Shvat dish from Gil Marks’ Olive Trees and Honey and one dessert recipe posted by Chabad. These dishes use ingredients that are in line with the season, strongly evoke the sentiments of Tu b’Shvat and are, of course, delicious. Navel oranges and Anjou pears ripen in winter. These dishes are one not-so-small way that we can discuss new behaviors and Jewishly tend to our fields.

Moroccan Greens with Orange Salad
Salad:
• Leaves from 1 head romaine lettuce, turn into pieces, or 1 bunch arugula or stemmed watercress, or any combination
• 3 Navel oranges, chilled, peeled, excess pith removed, and sliced crosswise

Dressing:
• 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 to 3 teaspoons sugar (optional)
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (I used rose water)
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 cup chopped fresh spearmint, or 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro (optional)
• 1/2 cup argan oil; or 1/2 cup olive oil; or 1/4 cup peanut oil

Method:
1) Arrange the greens on chilled individual serving plates or on the platter. Divide the orange slices among the serving places or arrange in overlapping sections on the platter.
2) To make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the juices, zest, salt, and optional honey, orange blossom water, and cinnamon. In a slow, steady stream, whisk in the oil. Drizzle the dressing over the oranges. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.

Nut-Filled Pears
• 2 Anjou pears
• 3 T. nuts, chopped (I used pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts)
• 1 tsp. cinnamon
• 1 tsp. sugar
• 1/2 cup of orange juice
Method:
1) Core the pears. Mix nuts and cinnamon.
2) Fill each pear cavity with nuts and cinnamon.
3) Place pears in a baking pan and pour orange juice over the pears.
4) Bake at 350*F for 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Rachel Grossman graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Language and Literature before spending three years in the former Soviet Union. Having spent two years in Ukraine with the Peace Corps and one year in Russia for graduate school, she now lives and works in Washington D.C. in International Development. She’s always on some sort of a journey, spiritual or physical, loves inventive cooking, photography, and rainbow knee high socks. An aspiring vegan, and full-time vegetarian, she is otherwise known as the Heebavore.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Trees

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