February's a barren month. The bounty of last autumn's harvest is a dim memory, and we're still months away from the first growth in spring. But to make the best of what we've got, I have just two words for you - fruit and nuts.
Traditionally, the depth of winter is a time when even stalwart produce disappears, and in its place the foresighted cook brought out the treasures they canned when resources were more plentiful - canned fruit and dried nuts.
Most urban and suburbanites neither have the time nor the inclination to put up produce, but fortunately, there is a whole industry that does. Canned and jarred fruit is simply poached fruit. Think about it; if you were to poach a pear, you'd peel it, core it and simmer it in a syrup of sugar, water and seasoning until it tender, which is exactly what's done in commercial canning.
Contrary to popular misconceptions that there are no preservatives in canned foods, the process of canning itself is preservative. The nutrition is similar to cooked produce, because the fruit is canned very close to harvest, and for the most part, the quality is good.
Nuts are dried seeds; they are destined for storage. Because the seed is the part of a plant that will generate the next generation, it's loaded with nutrients and energy that the sprout will need to start life. The bulk of energy is in the form of oil, which can go rancid if nuts are exposed to oxygen and light. For that reason, the safest place to store nuts after they are opened is in a freezer.
The flavor of most nuts is improved by toasting. Although toasting can be done in a skillet or hot oven, the easiest way is to toast them in a microwave. To do so, spread the desired amount of nuts in a single layer in a microwave-safe dish (a glass pie plate works great) and cook at full power until the aroma of toasted nut is strong, about three to four minutes for a cup of low-oil nuts, like almonds; or one to two minutes for oily ones like pine nuts.
The following recipes - just in time for Tu B'Shevat - for appetizers, entrees, side dishes and salads all take advantage of the bounty of fruit and nuts - in and out of the produce aisle.
Roasted Grapes, Garlic and Walnuts
1 lb. seedless grapes
16 garlic cloves, peeled, jarred or fresh
1 cup (about 3.5 oz.) walnut halves
2 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the grapes, garlic, walnuts, oil, salt and thyme in a baking dish suitable for serving.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven, smash the garlic and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.
Toss lightly, and serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Sweet-and-Sour Cranberry Brisket
nonstick spray oil
1 beef brisket, about 3 pounds
2 tsps. lemon-pepper seasoning
12 small onions, halved and peeled
1 cup kosher red wine, any type
1 can (about 15 oz.) beef broth
1 can (about 15 oz.) whole-berry cranberry sauce
Preheat a broiler, and spray the broiler pan with the nonstick spray oil.
Season the brisket on both sides with the lemon-pepper, and place fat side up on the pan. Scatter the onions, rounded-side up, around the brisket, and spray the onions with nonstick spray.
Broil 3 inches from the flame for about 10 minutes. Turn the onions, which should now be browned, and broil the brisket and onions for 10 minutes more, until the brisket is deeply browned and the onions cooked through. Remove and set aside the onions. Turn the brisket and brown it well on the other side, about 15 minutes.
Place the brisket in a large, heavy pot, and surround it with the onions. Pour the wine and broth into the broiler pan, scraping up any brown bits clinging to the rack or the pan.
Add the cranberry sauce and disperse it in the pan juices. Pour over the brisket, and heat until simmering. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, until the brisket is fork-tender.
Place the meat on a cutting board and boil the liquid in the pan until it is lightly thickened.
Meanwhile, slice the brisket against its grain and return the slices to the pan. Do not boil once meat is returned to pan.
Serve the sliced brisket, slathered with juices and onions.
Serve with horseradish.
Makes 6 servings.
Lemon Chicken With Dried Plums
1 chicken (4 lbs.), cleaned
1/2 tsp. herb-seasoning blend
12 pitted dried plums (prunes)
12 whole cloves of roasted garlic, jarred or freshly made
2 Tbsps. nonpareil capers
2 Tbsps. pine nuts
1 jar (about 11 oz.) lemon salad dressing
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Sprinkle the interior cavity of the chicken with the seasoning.
Toss the dried plums, garlic cloves, half the capers, and one-quarter cup of sauce together, and spoon into the chicken.
Rub the outside of the chicken with the olive oil, and place it breast-side down in a metal roasting pan. Roast for 30 minutes, turn breast-side up using a spatula, pour another one-quarter cup of the sauce over the chicken, and roast for 20 minutes more, until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 170 degrees.
Transfer the chicken to a carving board. Spoon the fat from the drippings, and set the pan over medium-low heat.
Add the remaining sauce and capers, as well as the pine nuts, to the pan and, with a spatula, scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan into the simmering sauce.
Heat until simmering.
Cut the chicken into serving pieces; serve with dried plums and sauce.
Makes 4 servings.
Wok-Seared Salmon With Pineapple Salsa
1/4 cup ground almonds or almond meal
1 tsp. garlic spice blend
salt and black pepper to taste
4 pieces salmon filet, about 11/2 lbs. total, each piece about 1-inch thick
2 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1 jar (about 16 oz.) pineapple salsa
Mix the almonds, spice blend, salt and pepper together. Season the salmon with the mixture on all sides.
Place a wok over a high heat until very hot, add the oil, and sear the salmon until deeply browned on all four sides. The surfaces of each piece will be lightly crispy, but the flesh will still be moist in the very center of its thickest parts.
Transfer the salmon with a slotted spatula to a platter.
Add the salsa to the wok.
Bring to a boil, and spoon the salsa over the salmon.
Makes 4 servings.
Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book isAlmost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine.