Winter fruit might seem less spectacular than the much more valued offerings of summer, but oranges and pears in particular, while quiet and common, can be the unexpected stars of simple savoury dishes.
This is perfect for Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees, which is a relatively unsung holiday. Sparkle up your Tu b’Shvat seder with an easy but surprisingly delicious sweet potato-pear soup, which goes perfectly with a winter salad featuring crunchy, colourful leaves refreshingly coated with orange sections and a yogurty-orange vinaigrette, and exuberantly dotted with pistachios (also from trees). Finish the meal with an old-fashioned cake brimming with apples and walnuts, and studded with cranberries.
CRANAPPLE WALNUT CAKE
Originally printed in the Moosewood Cookbook, this recipe now appears, adapted slightly, in The Heart of the Plate. You will likely want to serve this à la mode with some vanilla ice cream. If you anticipate this need, be sure to have the ice cream on hand before you begin.
The cake is quite sweet as is. If you are going to serve it with the ice cream, you might want to reduce the sugar a notch or two – maybe to 1-1/2 cups. If you buy extra-fresh whole cranberries in season and freeze some, you can enjoy them year-round. No defrosting necessary. Use nonstick spray.
1 3/4 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (also called “white whole wheat”), or you could use unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
2 medium apples (about 1/2 lb.), peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (chopped to the size of peanuts)
1/2 lb. fresh (or frozen) whole cranberries
Lightly spray a 9×13-in. pan with nonstick spray. Heat the oven to 375.
In a medium-large bowl, beat together the sugar, oil and vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.
In a second bowl, combine the flour with the other dry ingredients until thoroughly blended. Add the dry mixture to the wet, stirring until combined, folding in the fruit and nuts as you go. The batter will be very thick.
Patiently spread the batter into the prepared pan (take your time spreading it in place) and bake in the centre of the oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, and the top surface is springy to the touch. Serves about 8.
WINTER SALAD WITH RADICCHIO, ORANGES, PISTACHIOS AND YOGURTY-ORANGE VINAIGRETTE
Romaine and arugula join forces with radicchio and fresh orange sections, and an orange-laced yogurt dressing coats the leaves, allowing a scattering of pistachios to adhere at random. If you choose to form a bed of couscous or extra yogurt underneath each serving, you will be rewarded with an extra layer that both absorbs the delicious trickle-down juices and also boosts the volume of the dish, herding it into light main-dish terrain.
You can wash and spin the salad leaves (keeping them cold and very dry), prepare the vinaigrette and section the oranges well ahead of time. Dress and finish the salad immediately before serving.
The tangy vinaigrette, free-standing, will keep very well – for weeks – in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Shake well or stir from the bottom, before using.
1 heaping tbsp. finely minced shallot
1 tsp. agave nectar or honey
3 tbsp. orange juice
1 tbsp. cider vinegar
1/4 tsp. salt (rounded measure)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt (regular or Greek)
1/2 lb. very fresh radicchio (any type)
handful of small arugula leaves
about 6 perfect, crisp romaine leaves
2 oranges, sectioned
1/2 cup lightly toasted pistachios
Spread a bed of yogurt and/or couscous on the plate underneath the salad, as a bed to catch the dressing.
Combine the shallot, agave or honey, orange juice, vinegar and salt in a small bowl, and whisk to thoroughly blend.
Keep whisking as you drizzle in the olive oil, keeping up the action until it is completely incorporated.
Stir/whisk in the yogurt and mix until uniform. Cover and refrigerate until use.
Have the cleaned, dried salad leaves in a large enough bowl. Break them into bite-sized pieces as desired. Add about 6 tbsp. of the vinaigrette, tossing as you go, to thoroughly coat all the leaves. Add the orange sections toward the end, mixing them in gently so they don’t break. Sprinkle in the pistachios with the final toss, and serve pronto. Makes 4 servings.
SWEET POTATO-PEAR SOUP
Fresh pears and sweet potatoes are puréed together and finished off with touches of cinnamon and white wine. This unusual combination is slightly sweet, slightly tart and deeply soothing. My original version (published in Still Life with Menu) included milk or cream. This version is vegan-friendly, using oil instead of butter.
Use any wine that you enjoy drinking. And perhaps serve the rest of the bottle with the soup. Be sure to use the moist, orange variety of sweet potato, not the drier, starchier white type.
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes (1 pound)
4 cups water
1 3-in. stick cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3 large ripe pears (any kind but Bosc, which are too grainy)
1 tbsp. unsalted butter – or grapeseed or canola oil
1/4 cup crisp white wine
1 to 2 tbsp. fresh lemon or lime juice (to taste)
cayenne or white pepper (optional)
Peel sweet potatoes, and cut into small (about 3/4-in.) pieces. Place in a large saucepan with water, cinnamon stick and salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender (about 10 minutes). Remove the cover and let it simmer an additional 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick, and let the sweet potatoes rest in their cooking water while you fix the pears.
Peel and core the pears, and cut them into thin slices (about 1/4-in.).
Melt the butter (or heat the oil) in a heavy skillet over medium heat and swirl to coat the pan. Add the pears and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until quite soft. Add the wine, cover and simmer about 10 minutes longer over lowest possible heat.
Transfer the pear mixture to the sweet potatoes-au-jus, then purée everything together until smooth with an immersion blender. You can also use a stand blender in batches, and then return it to the pot.
Add lemon or lime juice to taste, plus a touch of cayenne or white pepper, if desired, and serve the soup hot. It reheats well, if necessary. Makes 5-6 servings.