January is the time to veg out

By Bernard Josephs, December 29, 2009
Winter vegetables are packed with nutrients and need not be boring

Winter vegetables are packed with nutrients and need not be boring

Not much about winter fruit is mentioned in the Bible, except of course for that apocalyptic apple that Eve is said to have shared with Adam in the Garden of Eden.

However, there is evidence in the scriptures that the ancient Israelites had quite an appetite for the many wild plants and herbs that flourished in Judea and Galilee during the days of the Prophets.

Cucumbers, melons, garlic, beans and corn were apparently part of their basic diet. But the most intriguing winter crop was mandrake, which has a fleshy root and is said to enhance fertility. It is known in Hebrew as dudaim (the love plant).

While its hallucinogenic and reputedly Viagra-like properties may have perked up the personal lives of the Israelites during winter, and despite its fragrance being praised in Solomon’s Song of Songs, it was thoroughly castigated by historians, including Josephus. He maintained that, whatever its properties, it tasted just awful.

Few of us have experienced the dubious flavour of this biblical narcotic, the leaves of which are picked towards the end of the year and which still grows in the Middle East and around the Eastern Mediterranean.

Most of us however will have wrinkled our noses at the more home- grown tastes, smells and textures of poorly prepared winter produce.

For instance, cabbage — packed as it is with vitamin C and health-giving nutrients, and however delicious it may be when cooked al dente, it can be transformed into something truly dreadful when over-boiled.

No wonder that generations of children have grown up reluctant to eat their greens. Yet many scrumptious dishes are to be made by using a wide range of seasonal vegetables and fruits.

Just take a glance at this list of tasty and nourishing ingredients harvested as the weather grows cold: beetroot, celeriac, leeks, marrow, squash, sprouts, onions, Jerusalem artichoke, mushrooms, red cabbage, turnips and, of course, the humble but versatile potato — to mention just a few. As for fruits, what could be sweeter than apples, pears and plums — harvested in the autumn and stored over the winter?

These items are the basic components of delicious kosher delicacies served up at this time of year around the Jewish world.

In his book Olive Trees and Honey, chef, rabbi and historian Gil Marks, the founding editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine, points to such Sephardi delicacies as Moroccan mashed potato casserole and Tunisian chickpeas with greens as favourite winter dishes enjoyed by Middle Eastern Jews.

Vegetables are also the main ingredients in some truly spectacular soups, some of which originate from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and have now been adapted to British and American tastes.

For example, leek and squash soup with caramelised apple croutons makes even the coldest winter evening cosy, as does winter vegetable and barley soup with butternut squash, potato, carrots, barley and onion.

Perhaps the best known vegetarian soup in the Jewish lexicon is borsht, the beetroot soup which comes in both hot and cold variations. Ukrainian and Russian versions are usually hot and can include optional added ingredients such as beans, cabbage, carrots, onions and mushrooms. But the classic borsht is made simply with beets and served cold with a dollop of sour cream.

For those with a sweet tooth, winter fruits also have some pudding classics, including hot baked apples stuffed with raisins and topped with crusty brown sugar. But my favourite is apple and plum crumble smothered with steaming custard.

Last updated: 2:25pm, December 29 2009