Tu BiShvat, or the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat, is the new year for the trees. It falls on January 20th this year. It’s a holiday with a practical origin. Ancient Israelites were required to tithe from fruit trees three years of age or older, and Tu BiShvat was used as the official cut-off date.
Today, Tu BiShvat marks the beginning of springtime in Israel, and Jews celebrate it by hosting kabbalah-inspired seders and eating the seven fruits and grains named in Deuteronomy as the main produce of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. (I also remember gnawing on pieces of dried carob, or buksur, when I was a little girl. I had no idea why, but if you’re interested, I found this very helpful.)
I hadn’t set out to make a dish for the holiday. What happened was this: I became totally enamored with the rutabaga, aka golden turnip, last month. I would steam one and eat it for breakfast. Underneath its sharpness I could taste a sweetness that’s almost floral. Wanting to draw out that flavor, I headed to the dried fruit section of my pantry. (Yes, dried fruit: an unsung hero of the pantry. A handful of raisins or cranberries can really brighten any dish.)
After a little digging, I decided on the date. Looking back, I realize I must have been inspired by a grilled turnip and dates dish I had at the Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia this past summer. The tasting menu was an incredibly reasonable $36, an unbelievably low price considering the amount and quality of the food. If you have seen a tasting menu at a lower price, please please please let me know. I must emphasize that this restaurant is Israeli but not kosher. They do serve meat, but dairy eaters and vegetarians will still walk away with a very full belly.
Anyhow, my guess was right, as the date really enhances the fruitiness of rutabagas, while the bit of thyme here plays up its floral quality. The soft medjool dates are used here as they are in biblical texts, cooked down to make a kind of date-honey.
Rutabaga with Dates and Thyme
One rutabaga, peeled and diced
One small onion, peeled, halved and sliced thin
Four dates, pitted and chopped
Five sprigs of thyme
1/2 cup of stock
2 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste
Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan on a medium-low heat. Sweat the onions with a few pinches of salt until they’re soft and near translucent, about nine minutes. Add the chopped dates and stir until they have melted down and coated the onions. Stir in the rutabaga. Add the half cup of stock, give a stir, and cover for about 50 minutes, until the rutabaga’s flesh is easily pierced with a fork. Stir in the leaves of thyme, cook for a minute or two longer and serve.