I didn’t know what the holiday meant, but I knew about the trees and I knew about birthdays, and that was enough to love it.
Now I’m using the “birthday of the trees” to take advantage of the delicious local and seasonal foods I get from the trees all around me. Tu b’Shevat falls in January, which is not a month known for bountiful produce here in the Mid-Atlantic. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t seasonal tree-based treats in store.
Though they fill the grocery store year-round, apples are actually a great winter tree fruit. Some varieties of apples—called “keeping apples”—can be harvested in the fall and kept in a cool, dry place for months, keeping their sweet taste. Before refrigerators, these keeping apples were some of the only ways to get fresh fruit in the winter. When the apples I’ve stored (in my nice, modern fridge) start to lost their crunch, I just turn them into apple pie or applesauce.
Apples aren’t the only seasonal tree fruit to eat, though. There are rich, succulent nuts that fill trees, too.
Pecans and chestnuts are both tree fruits, hailing from trees in the southern and northern US, respectively. Pecans ripen in a thick, hard shell that cracks open to reveal the familiar brown, wrinkled nut. Chestnuts grow in a spiked bunch that splits open to reveal a cluster of nuts, each in its own hard, glossy shell.
Both of these nuts are harvested in the fall and show up on plenty of American dinner tables in the fall and winter. Pecans are famous in pies, but I also use them on top of sweet potatoes or mixed into cakes. Chestnuts are tasty roasted whole, but it’s imperative that you cut an X in the shell first, to release the steam. This keeps the nut from exploding as it cooks!
Nutmeg is the nut of an Indonesian tree. The sweet-and-spicy flavor is used as a spice in many savory and sweet dishes, but to me it is essential in pumpkin pie and mulled wine.
In fact, my spice cabinet is bursting with trees!
Cloves are the buds of a flowering tree, which are dried (and sometimes ground up) before they reach the kitchen. I love their spicy smell and often add a pinch to anything that includes cinnamon to kick it up a notch.
Bay leaves, which I like to drop into soups and stews, grow on laurel trees and are usually sold whole. The only hard part of cooking with bay is remembering to remove the leaf before eating.
Good old cinnamon is made from the bark of a tree. Cinnamon goes way back—it shows up in the Torah—and continues to be extremely popular today. As a kid, my mom would make toast topped with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I think cinnamon is the key to the perfect apple pie and really ups the ante on hot chocolate.
Often overlooked, there’s one more edible part of the tree: sap. While many tree saps are edible, there’s only one that’s made it into our pantries—maple syrup. Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees, which is drawn out (trees are “tapped”) in the early spring. The sap comes out looking like water and is then cooked down until the water evaporates and the sap remains.
There are endless ways to combine these ingredients to have a tasty, tree-based Tu b’Shevat. Whether you replace sugar with maple syrup in a favorite recipe, mix pecans into your trail mix or spice up French toast with nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, there are delicious trees all around, and I think Tu b’Shevat is the perfect time to take full advantage of it all.