For Tu B’Shevat, the battle of bars
A long time ago, I lived in Israel for a year. One of the things I liked best about living there was the way Jewish holidays were reflected in the supermarket. In the weeks before Chanukah, sufganiot (jelly donuts) would start appearing, hamantashen would be on the shelves in anticipation of Purim, and so on. For Tu B’Shevat, which celebrates the new year for trees, the markets would promote dried fruit and nuts, the kind of produce always available during this midwinter festival.
This year, Tu B’Shevat is on Jan. 30; to honor the holiday I decided to check out the plethora of fruit and nut bars that are available in local stores (all those tried are also available online).
So-called energy bars have been around for a while, usually packed with protein and dozens of ingredients, most of which you won’t find in the average kitchen, or supermarket, for that matter. Fruit and nut bars are much simpler, consisting of a combination of dried fruit and nuts and not much else. Many of these are raw (the pros and cons of raw food could be a column in itself), gluten free, vegan and/or pareve; many are kosher certified.
The concept of grinding dried fruit and mixing it with nuts is not new – I have a 1904 volume called “Uncooked Foods” with a recipe for Nut-Fig Marmalade, in which layers of ground figs and dates are pressed together with Brazil nuts and pecans, then sliced. Coconut-coated Date Nut Rolls, such as those made by Amport Foods (O-U certified, $2.99 at Shaw’s for an 8-oz. package, www.amportfoods.com) are similar, dates ground with apples, rolled in coconut and studded with whole almonds.
However, the first modern commercial bar product I encountered like this was in 2004: the LÄRABAR (O-U certified, $1.69 at Shaw’s for a 1.8-oz. bar; www.larabar.com); after sampling several brands, this is still my favorite.
At the time I discovered LÄRABARs, energy bars were still a burgeoning industry, and at first glance I thought this was just another artificially vitamin- and protein-packed concoction. Not so. What struck me about LÄRABARs was the number of ingredients listed on the Cherry Pie bar: three (dates, almonds, cherries). And, while it didn’t have the level of protein of so-called protein bars, it felt and tasted REAL, and still made for a satisfying snack.
I like the clean taste of LÄRABARs, and the texture isn’t too gummy or gritty; it’s moist without being cloying, with just the right level of sweetness. They come in an impressive array of flavors (16), plus six rich chocolate variations in their Jocolat line. My favorites are Key Lime, Cashew Cookie, and Cherry Pie.
Since then, several other companies have attempted to create similar bars, but the LÄRABAR now touts “The original fruit and nut bar” as a registered trademark on its label. I sampled bars from the following competitors: Clif Nectar; Mrs. May’s Trio; Organic Food Bar; Pure Organic; Raw Organic Food Bar; Raw Revolution; Weil by Nature’s Path. All include dates, which work well to bind the various ingredients together. But there are notable differences. Some were almost gummy or rubbery in texture, others were gritty or very dry and crumbly. Some were overly sweet, while others had an off flavor. In the end, there were three brands in addition to LÄRABAR that I liked well enough to buy again.
Mrs. May’s Trio bars (KSA certified, $1 for a 1.2 oz. bar at Shaw’s, mrsmays.com) are quite different from the other bars, which all have a chewy texture from ground fruit. They are crunchy, and they are not raw. The nuts are toasted, and rice syrup helps hold them together more than the ground dried fruit. The name comes from their ingredients. The bars contain a trio of trios: at least three kinds each of nuts, fruit, and seeds. There are four Trio flavors. I particularly liked the crunchiness – a nice departure – and the flavor on the Tropical Fruit bar I tried was sunny and bright.
Raw Revolution Organic Live Food Bar (Apple-K/Natural Food Certifiers, $1.99 at Shaw’s for a 2.2 oz. bar; www.rawindulgence. com) actively promotes the raw factor, and is a chewy-style bar. The bars come in 10 flavors, all based on a core mix of ground cashews, dates, almonds, sprouted flax seeds and agave nectar (a low glycemic sweetener). I tried the Coconut & Agave Nectar, which had a pleasant coconut flavor. The cashews provided a smooth, buttery texture that balanced nicely against the chewy bits of coconut. Raw Revolution’s first product was a raw brownie; these roots are reflected in the number of “& Chocolate” combos they offer (Cashew, Coconut, Hazelnut, Raisin, Raspberry).
I also liked the Pure Organic Bar (O-U certified, $2.19 at Shaw’s for a 1.7-oz. bar; www.thepurebar.com). The Cashew Cherry bar I sampled had a mouth-puckering sour cherry flavor and a smooth, almost creamy texture, and was gone before I knew it. The bars are largely organic and come in six flavors; they include agave nectar in addition to the dried fruit.
Any of these bars will add a festive feel to Tu B’Shevat this year.
Lagniappe: Not a bar, but a lovely Tu B’Shevat treat: Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Pomegranate Seeds (Kaf-K, $2.99 for a 5-oz. package). Pomegranates are the “in” flavor these days, with their well-promoted antioxidants. These look like miniature chocolate-covered raisins. They’re slightly chewy with a little crunch and have a pleasing tangy-sweetness that balances well with the bittersweet chocolate.
For more on this story, please visit The Jewish Advocate Online.