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NEW YORK, May 22 (JTA)--One December two decades ago, my daughter and I ambled into the Paradise Market on Madison Avenue and were shocked to see perky strawberries piled in a pyramid.
"Strawberries during Chanukah?" Allissa asked. At 9 years old, she was as awed by the timing of their appearance as she was by this produce boutique.
Seduced by the strawberries' plump red perfection, I didn't mind paying $6 a pound for a taste of summer on a cold dark day.
"Are you crazy?" my husband asked me, when Allissa showed him the 12 strawberries the shopkeeper had wrapped for us in tissue paper.
"Of course they're expensive," I said. "What do you expect--they're from Paradise!''
To mollify her dad, Allissa suggested we save the precious berries for dessert. Born in the mid-seventies, she arrived on the cusp of an agricultural revolution.
Back then, produce was available at limited times of the year. In summer, you got juicy peaches, robust ripe tomatoes, and basil by the bunch. In winter, you settled for canned peaches, hard tomatoes packed four to a carton, and dried basil bits in tiny glass jars. Apples and squash reigned in autumn; peas and strawberries in spring.
Now we are luckier, I suppose. All kinds of produce are shipped from Israel, Florida, California and South America, and you can buy anything that grows year round. But this continuous cornucopia robs us of our sense of seasons. We have forgotten that in every climate, crops are harvested at specific times of year. Glutted into apathy, we no longer look forward to the ripening of favorite foods. We need Shavuot to remind us that every harvest is a miracle, a gift from God to lavish on our table.
Perhaps the least observed of the major Jewish holidays, Shavuot began as an agricultural festival in which the ancient Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to make an offering at the Temple in thanks for the late spring harvest. In fact, the holiday marked the end of one harvest and the beginning of another, a time when barley gave way to wheat. Falling at opposite ends of the growing season, Passover and Sukkot were pilgrimage celebrations too.
But it was during the Shavuot festival that ancient Israelites honored the season's glory by bringing samples of the first fruits of the seven species to the Temple: figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, olives, and of course, barley and wheat. Not surprisingly, today these are the crops for which Israel is famous.
In the Bible, Shavuot was called Hag Hakatzir (Harvest Holiday) and Yom Habikkurim (Day of First Fruits). It falls seven weeks after Passover, at the time many centuries ago, when Moses had climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Accordingly, the holiday is given a third name, Feast of Weeks.
Because Shavuot is renowned for the Lord bestowing the Torah on the Children of Israel, the agricultural aspect of the holiday is often overlooked. Likened to the Torah, milk is a symbol of purity because of its color. The one holiday on the Jewish calendar linked with dairy products, Shavuot is more often identified with cheesecake than bushels of fruit.
When the Temple stood, two loaves of wheat bread, symbolizing the bounty of the season, were waved before the Lord on Shavuot. They were made from the best specimens of wheat grown that season. Since the bread offering is one of the few biblical rites connected with this holiday, a special emphasis is placed on holiday breads. Ashkenazi Jews often serve two challahs, one for each of the tablets of the Law received at Mount Sinai. Sephardic Jews customarily bake round seven-layered breads called siete cielos (seven heavens in Spanish).
Whether you observe Shavuot every year or this is your first time, I suggest incorporating as many of the seven species into fruit-filled recipes like the ones below.
Bulgar Wheat Salad (Tabbouleh) hails from several Sephardic countries and features a tangy dressing playing counterpoint to vivid vegetables and herbs.
Leafy Lettuce and Fruit is a crunchy salad, calling for figs, olives and raisins.
Date-Filled Fish, Moroccan Style, is a sweet and savory Rosh Hashanah dish, which also compliments Shavuot's fruit theme.
Custard Peach Pie caps an otherwise light meal with a dash of decadence. Its fragrant essence and delicate pastry are as airy as a spring day.
To augment the fruit motif, start the meal with grapes and a platter of cheese. Adorn the dining table with bowls of olives in various sizes, shapes and colors (picholine, cerignola and kalamata), and a bowl of mixed fruit. Serve two loaves of challah; or in the case of Sephardim, two breads of choice. Honoring grapes again, pour chilled white wine.
Among Shavuot's lovely aspects is the celebration of garden fresh produce, which floods farmers' markets around the world at this time of year, filling the air with the perfume of the season's first fruits.
BULGAR WHEAT SALAD (TABBOULEH)
This colorful salad is shown to advantage when ingredients are layered in a glass bowl. If it is funnel shaped, you'll have to increase the specified amounts of tomatoes, cucumbers and dill to cover the upper layers. Use a two-quart bowl and prepare 24 hours before serving.
1 cup uncooked bulgar wheat
1 cup fresh lemon juice, about 6 lemons
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1. Place bulgar in bowl.
2. Whisk remaining ingredients in another bowl and pour over bulgar. Reserve.
4 tomatoes, seeds removed and pulp diced
2/3 cup flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 medium-sized red onion, diced
1/2 seedless English cucumber, diced
2/3 cup dill, coarsely chopped
1. Creating several layers, start by placing two of the diced tomatoes over bulgar.
2. Cover tomatoes with parsley, followed by onion, cucumber and dill. Spread remaining tomatoes over dill. (Layers should not reach top of bowl to ease tossing later.)
3. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
4. Because this salad is a dazzler, do not disturb layers. Wait to toss them at the table. Salad can be eaten cold or at room temperature.
Yield: 8 servings
LEAFY LETTUCE AND FRUIT
1/8 cup sunflower seeds
16 leaves of Romaine lettuce, rinsed, dried with paper towels and broken into bite-sized pieces.
32 olives of any kind, pitted
8 dried figs, cut into quarters
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1. Roast sunflower seeds in a toaster oven at 350 degrees for 1-2 minutes, watching constantly as seeds burn easily.
2. Place all ingredients in a salad bowl and toss with vinaigrette below.
Red Wine Vinaigrette:
4 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp. Garlic powder
Salt to taste
Whisk ingredients well.
Yield: 8 servings
DATE FILLED FISH, MOROCCAN STYLE
1/2 lb. dates, preferably Medjool
1/2 cup cooked rice
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
1. Pit dates. If using a variety tougher than Medjool, steam them for 1-2 minutes to soften. Cool.
2. Place dates in a medium sized bowl and mash a little. Add remaining ingredients and mix well, until a sticky consistency forms.
21/2 lbs. whole red snapper, sea bass, or grouper
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil
No-stick vegetable spray
1 medium onion, sliced
2 lemons, sliced for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Rinse fish under cold water inside and out. Dry with paper towels. Sprinkle inside of fish with salt and pepper. Fill cavity with stuffing and close with small metal skewers.
3. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. olive oil on topside of fish and rub with fingertips until skin is evenly coated. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn over and repeat.
4. Coat roasting pan with no-stick spray. Place circles of onions in a straight line across length of pan. Center fish on top of them.
5. Bake fish for 25-35 minutes. Skin should be brown and, when a sharp knife is inserted into the spine, flesh should be white, not pink.
6. Remove skewers gently. With wooden or plastic spatulas, carefully move fish to a platter. Surround with lemon slices. Discard onion.
Yield: 4 servings. (For larger parties, prepare more than one fish.)
CUSTARD PEACH PIE
Fool-Proof Pie Crust:
11/2 cups flour, plus extra for rolling
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 stick cold sweet butter, cut into four chunks
1/4 cup ice water
9 inch pie pan (regular size, not deep-dish)
No-stick vegetable spray
1. Fit metal blade in a food processor and place 11/2 cups flour, sugar and butter inside. Cover and process ingredients while slowly pouring water through feed tube. Process for 1-2 minutes, or until mixture clumps and is moist enough to hold together. It shouldn't be crumbly.
2. Generously dust counter and rolling pin with flour.
3. Shape dough into a round ball. Roll ball around in flour on counter, adding more if necessary, so counter is amply covered.
4. With rolling pin, gently flatten dough ball. Continue working rolling pin back and forth until the shape of a circle (don't worry about the circle being perfect) forms larger than the circumference of pie pan. (While rolling, gently shift dough circle on counter, so it doesn't stick. If dough tears, patch it by pushing edges together with fingers. It's more forgiving than you think.)
5. Cover top half of dough circle with a piece of aluminum foil. Fold bottom half over foil. Repeat so your dough circle is folded into quarters.
6. Coat pie pan with no-stick spray. Gently lift dough and place in pan. Unfold dough and move into place. If too much dough drapes over pan, trim with scissors, leaving 1/2 inch beyond sides of pan, because dough shrinks during baking. Reserve.
4 peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced thin
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup half and half
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange peach slices in pie crust, starting at outside edge and working toward the center. Overlap, if necessary.
2. In a large bowl, beat remaining ingredients until frothy. Pour custard mixture over peaches.
3. Bake for 40 minutes, or until custard sets and feels a bit firm to the touch. Peaches may darken at edges.
4. Cool to room temperature before slicing. Serve within a few hours. Refrigerate leftovers.
Yield: 8-10 slices.