By Joan Nathan, The New York Times
When planning meals for the fall Jewish holidays, I often think back to the food from Canaan.
The fertile land — encompassed now by parts of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — was a place where one could, according to Deuteronomy, “eat food without stint,” rich as it was with ancient ingredients like wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees and honey.
A reminder of the persistence of these natural gifts has never felt so poignant. At a time when we face many plagues — pestilence, fire, drought, floods — I find it particularly meaningful to return to the biblical riches that symbolize rebirth and renewal, which we so deeply need today.
For Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year (which comes very early this year on Sept. 6), I’ll make a seasonal salad that includes those ingredients mentioned in the Torah, along with some others, as well as a round, robust challah made with emmer, the ancient wheat. For years, I have been playing a game, seeing how I can go back and taste what people would have been eating more than 3,000 years ago at this time of year. This salad, with its sweet and tangy flavors, brings it all together.
“Back then, the main staples were grapes, olives and some kind of grain, usually wheat or barley,” said Eric Cline, a professor of archaeology at George Washington University. “Many of the simple but hardy ingredients that we would toss in a salad, like olives and lentils, would also be at home with the Canaanites. Imagine a woman in the Galilee gathering greens and fruits to complement the main dish. We would be surprised at how familiar yet exotic her salad would have tasted.”
No tomatoes, peppers, corn or potatoes for this salad, as these foods came to the Middle East after Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries introduced them, bringing them from the New World to the Old. And despite apples being dipped in honey at so many holiday tables, the fruit, originating in Kazakhstan, was not a biblical species. Although the Bible mentions the generic Hebrew word for fruit, “peri,” to refer to the forbidden one in the Garden of Eden, it was not until Jews moved to Europe that they adapted the apple, a fruit more readily available to them than dates and pomegranates, for the blessing.
To this day, as part of a Rosh Hashana meal, many Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews say blessings over fall foods to symbolize hope for the new year. So this salad has the flavors of fall — pomegranates, olives, figs and beets. Ancient beets were prized for the greens, not the vibrant root, which is much bigger today; in this salad, I use both. Biblical herbs like mint, thyme, hyssop and parsley perk up the salad and a saltier brined goat cheese or a sheep curd cheese like feta contrasts the sweetness of the fall fruits.
According to Jon Greenberg, an ethnobotanist, “etrog” (the Farsi and Hebrew word for citron) can also be used, since this biblical citrus, with its thick pith and little juice, is central to the fall holiday of Sukkot. Though Greenberg said etrog in the ancient world was juicier than it is today, I opt instead for the juice of the lemon for the tart dressing. Related to etrog, the lemon also came long ago to the Middle East from as far away as Southeast Asia. And rather than bee honey, I choose date syrup, the more common “honey” of the Old Testament, to add a little sweetness to the lemon.
Although most of our foods reflect more than 3,000 years of adaptation to changing tastes, standards of living and access to ingredients, this salad is a wonderful reminder of what was once and still is on all of our holiday tables. “And, if you like sesame, bananas, soybeans and turmeric in your salad,” Cline said, “we now have archaeological evidence that by 1100 B.C. they came from Southeast Asia to Megiddo and other sites in what was then the land of Canaan.”
Recipe: Beet and Barley Salad With Date-Citrus Vinaigrette
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Have fun with this early fall salad, meant for Rosh Hashana but festive throughout the season. Bitter and tart greens, like arugula, crunchy romaine and celery, pair well with shallots or red onion, dates, dried figs, a handful of multicolored olives and crisp, refreshing cucumbers. About a cup of cooked barley adds chew, but you could use lentils or chickpeas instead for more protein. If you can find them, heirloom varieties of barley add wonderful nutty complexity. Beets — used in ancient times more for the leaves than the roots — currants and green grapes lend color and sweetness, as well as a pomegranate, the symbol of fruitfulness by virtue of its many seeds. All these foods are symbolic of fertility, abundance, and prosperity in the New Year.
- 2 medium beets, scrubbed
- 1/2 cup pearl barley
- Coarse kosher salt
- 1 lemon
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 teaspoons date honey (also labeled date syrup)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 handfuls of mixed slightly bitter lettuce, like chicory, arugula, romaine, Swiss chard or beet leaves, roughly torn
- 1 cup fresh mixed herbs, like mint, thyme, oregano, parsley, hyssop, lovage and cilantro
- 2 celery stalks, cut down the center and diced in 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 to 2 Persian cucumbers, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch dice
- 2 large shallots or 1/2 red onion, diced in 1/2-inch pieces (see Tip)
- 5 dried figs or 4 fresh figs, quartered
- 1 cup white or red grapes, or a combination, halved
- 1 cup mixed pitted olives, halved
- 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the beets individually in foil. Bake until tender when pierced with a fork, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. When cool enough to handle, peel the beets and cut into bite-size pieces.
2. While the beets are roasting, make the barley: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the barley and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until al dente.
3. While the barley is cooking, make the salad dressing: Squeeze the juice from the lemon (about 2 tablespoons) into a small bowl. Add the garlic and date honey, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil and set aside.
4. When the barley is cooked, drain, rinse and drain again. Taste, adding more salt, if necessary, and let cool completely.
5. When ready to serve, use your hands to gently mix the lettuce and herbs in a large salad bowl and scatter on the barley, beets, celery, cucumbers, shallots, figs and grapes. Top with the olives, pomegranate seeds and feta, and sprinkle on the dressing. Mix at the table and serve immediately.
Tip: If you’d like to mellow out the bite of raw shallot, you can soak it in cold water for about 10 minutes, then drain.
(Recipe by Joan Nathan)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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