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Dates and health, plus a seed milk recipe

June 8, 2018

Plate of dates, seeds and seed milkAre dates really good for you? Are they a natural aphrodisiac? Can they really protect against cancer? Having a good root around for the truth about dates and health this is what I discovered.

There’s a mass of contradictory information about sweeteners out there. We know that sugar in any form is bad for us so when we do want something sweet what do we choose? If there was heaven and hell for things that taste sweet then refined white sugar would be right down in the fiery flames and the natural stuff in fresh fruit would be floating up on celestial clouds. Others like raw honey, coconut sugar, molasses, agave syrup, maple syrup, stevia and corn syrup would all be jostling for a slot somewhere in between, confessing their sins and bigging up their good works.

Some ‘health websites’ even warn about the natural fructose in whole fruit but this totally ignores that what determines whether sugar is bad for you or not depends on the context. It’s almost impossible to eat enough fruit to consume enough fructose in quantity to do harm. This is because it takes time to eat (chewing resistance) and digest due to the high levels of fibre plus lots of water so the fructose reaches your liver in slow, steady, manageable amounts.

So where do dates, which are fruits, fit into the picture?

Are dates good for you?

The date palm and its bounty have been associated with health for centuries. Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar) a Sumerian goddess of love and procreation whose symbol and home was the date palm was thought to protect women in childbirth.  Mary sought the protection of the palm while in labour with Jesus according to the Quran.

The Assyrians and Ancient Egyptians used dates as a cure for coughs, earache and stomach ache, made them into poultices to treat blisters and taken to fight demons (perhaps I should send a load to the US Democrat party). Crushed dried dates were mixed with milk to treat children’s coughs. Children were weaned off their mother’s milk with dates too.

Imagine eating 1/2 kilo of dates on your wedding night. That’s what grooms are advised to do for maximum potency and vigour. Many parts of the palm are thought to be an aphrodisiac including the palm heart and the inflorescence (long cases that contain flower clusters), as well as the fruit itself.

So is there any foundation for these health claims – and is their modern evidence that dates actually good for you?

“As well as tasting so delicious, dates are a brilliant source of soluble fiber, keeping you full and helping lower bad cholesterol. These sticky treats, while calorie-dense, are also great sources of minerals and vitamins, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, B vitamins and vitamin K. Because of the calorie content (nearly 300 calories for 4 fat Medjool dates), moderation is key. Sorry! But their high amounts of fibre, as well as eating them with something like walnuts or cheese, will affect your blood sugar levels much less than many other sweet treats. “. 

Kellie Anderson, Health Educationist and Nutrition Adviser with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, and author of Food to Glow

Despite being high in natural sugar, dates are low on the glycemic index they don’t cause a huge spike in blood glucose after you eat them, and studies have shown that they could be ok for people with type 2 diabetes if eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

Dates as a natural sugar substitute

So dates are much healthier than refined sugars and bundled with other goodness. It’s better to reach for a few dates after exercise than a processed energy bar. They have the edge on other dried fruits as they are naturally dehydrated where they grow, easy to digest and retain a reasonable amount of water, especially in the rutab stage.

Dates have been the mainstay of the increasingly popular, raw, vegan diet and turn up in date caramel, bliss balls and un-cooked brownies. I first became aware of this way of eating in the early 80s from Leslie Kenton, then Health and Beauty Editor of Harpers & Queen UK, who was a huge proponent of a diet of mainly raw vegetables and fruit, mineral water and avoiding processed foods.  She used dates as a natural sweetener in many plant-based milks including this sweet seed milk which is easy to make, highly nutritious and easy to digest.

I find most milk alternatives pretty boring to drink on their own, including this one – you might disagree – but they are an excellent base, packed with goodness, for smoothies or natural flavours (see bottom of recipe).

Sweet seed milk

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
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A plant-based milk packed with goodness with different delicious flavour variations

Adapted from Raw Energy by Leslie Kenton

Ingredients

  • 30g pumpkin seeds
  • 15g sesame seeds
  • 250ml water
  • 5 dates, stoned
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)

Flavour options

  • 1 frozen ripe banana
  • or 25g raw cocoa or carob powder with a dash of vanilla extract
  • or 30g dried shredded coconut

Directions

  1. Put the seeds, water and dates into your blender and leave to soak overnight.
  2. In the morning blend together well and add the lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.

Flavour options: Blend again with the banana or cocoa/carob plus vanilla until smooth. If using the coconut soak overnight it with the seeds and add a little more water.

Bowl of yoghurt and a plate of dates

Other health benefits of dates

Studies have also shown that there is a lower rate of cancer and longer life among populations where dates are consumed regularly which may account for the longevity of Bedouins.  There are even claims that dates are beneficial in treating alcoholism (although I can’t find any scientific evidence but eating a healthy diet and avoiding refined sugar is recommended) as they minimise the urge for alcohol. You steep dates in water for a couple of hours and drink the liquid twice a day for a month is recommended Let me know if it works!

Main Sources: Kellie Anderson Food to Glow, Dates a Global History by Nawal Nasrallah, Healthline – are dates good for you, Health US News

Plate of dates, seeds and seed milk

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Hope this has been interesting. I’m keen not to add to the wealth of unsubstantiated health claims for ingredients that abound online so have kept this to what I can find evidence for or been honest when I can’t.

You can read more about dates and recipes containing them if interested.

Ramadan breads with dates

June 6, 2018

Ramadan date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

The air is warm and slightly sweet. Beside a very grand mosque, an organic shop and a barber, is a bakery. At its centre is a deep tandoor, like a giant urn with its mouth open wide to swallow the flat rounds of dough which is slapped on its walls. The baker reaches in with a metal rod and flicks the warm bread, corrugated with air bubbles trapped by the searing heat. KP, freshly shorn, hands over 1 dirham in exchange for a thin, plastic bag which is already cloudy with condensation from the steaming contents. Two minutes later he is home and we tear off soft hunks and stuff them into our mouths. Nothing else is needed.

Bread, like in many cuisines and cultures, is an important part of life in the Middle East. Anissa documents in her book (see below) that wheat was first domesticated in Mesopotamia (part of the fertile crescent which stretches from the Syrian desert to the Mediterranean sea, and Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Agriculture encouraged permanent settlements to be formed – the start of civilisation. Over the centuries, as towns and cities were established, each neighbourhood would have had, and often still has, a local baker as there weren’t ovens (or electricity) in houses. You can imagine the daily ritual of collecting it warm from the oven, not once every couple of weeks like KP and I. It was a place to swap news, a place of affordable nourishment, a daily simple, sustaining pleasure.

Annia Ciezadlo describes in Day of Honey how people in Beirut, when the threatened with tanks or a siege during the civil war, would rush first to stock up with bread and often the baker was the only shop to open.

That trip to the baker would have heightened anticipation during Ramadan after a day of fasting, where celebration breads, often stuffed with dates, would be served for that Holy month.

There were no ovens in the desert so bread was cooked in griddles over the fire by the Bedouin tribes. Khameer is a traditional Emirati sweet bread, scented with cardamon and often stuffed with dates.

A variety of date breads and a plate of dates

The dark breads are a test of a variation from Iraq – more about this soon

I turned to Anissa Helou’s ‘Savory Baking from the Mediterranean‘ when researching date bread recipes. It’s a book inscribed to me by Anissa when she spoke at the Emirates Festival of Literature in 2013. While her early career was as an art consultant to the rich and famous, I sat in the front row of her session, along with other food-obsessed friends, drawn by her meticulous research, her in-depth exploration of Middle East food, and vibrant recipes. She took up the baton from Claudia Roden to introduce the Western World to the breadth and variety of Arab and Mediterranean food through her cookbooks, excellent blog, cookery classes, TV and radio appearances.  She looks majestic with her elegant bearing and distinctive hairstyle, but was warm and charming to us all.

Anissa’s instructions are incredibly thorough, from explaining how to take the seeds out of a pomegranate to the step by step guide for Ramadan breads with dates.  My breads emerged puffed up and golden from the oven, the texture fluffy and half way between a brioche and soft roll encasing a melting layer of date purée. As there was no photograph of the finished breads in the book, I was keen to know if they looked as they should so I dropped a quick photo and question to Anissa who replied immediately with an encouraging “nice!”. She advised that they were supposed to be flatter to be authentic “but they look great all the same”.

In the recipe head notes, Anissa says that you’ll find these breads in many different shapes and sizes all over the souks of Tripoli, Damascus and Aleppo.  It’s tragic how these cities have changed since she wrote that. I hope that some date breads are being enjoyed somewhere in that part of the world this Ramadan.

Anissa generously gave me her blessing to reproduce her recipe here. My adaptations have been to convert the ingredients into metric measurements and have added a few of my own words.

They are rewarding to make, with a nice balance of sweetness from the dates, the fluffy soft bread and crunchy sesame seeds. Best eaten with the warmth of the oven still lingering.

Ramadan breads with dates

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: medium
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Khobz Ramadan are celebratory breads which are fluffy, light and brioche-like with a soft, date filling and crunchy sesame seed topping. They freeze well so can be eaten throughout the year.

Credit: Anissa Helou (with permission), Savory Baking from the Mediterranean

Ingredients

  • 3/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast (instant active yeast)
  • 420g plain flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried milk powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50g caster sugar
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 10g unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 230g pitted dates, preferably Medjool (about 10 Medjool)
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 60g white sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Directions

  1. Dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm water and stir until creamy.
  2. Combine the flour, milk powder, baking powder, caster sugar and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add 10g softened butter and the oil into the well and, with your fingertips, rub them into the flour until well incorporated. Add the yeast and gradually add 240 ml warm water (blood temperature), bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough. You could also do this stage in a food mixer like a Kitchenaid with a paddle.
  3. Remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead for 3 minutes. Place your large bowl upside down over the dough and leave it to rest for 15 minutes. Knead again for 2-3 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Rinse out the bowl, dry it and dust lightly with flour. Shape the dough into a ball, put in the bowl and cover (I use waxed cloth instead of cling film these days or you could cover with a plate). Let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour.  Flatten into a circle, brush any excess flour from the dough and fold the edges in on each side to make a rectangle. Cover and let it rise for 1 hour more. The dough should have doubled in volume.
  4. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the dates in a food processor. Add the 60g butter and process to a fine paste (this is easier with soft dates like Medjool). Shape the paste into a thick cylinder, wrap, and put into the fridge.
  5. Return the dough to the work surface. Divide it into 6 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Cover with a slightly damp tea towel and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  6. Divide the date paste into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. On a lightly floured surface roll out 1 ball of dough, with a rolling pin, to a circle of about 15 cm in diameter. Flatten a ball of date paste, with your fingers, to a thin, slightly smaller, flat circle – about 11 cm in diameter. Place the date circle in the middle of the dough. Fold the edges of the dough over in little pleats so it covers the filling completely. Pinch the edges to seal them, and flatten the bread firmly with your hand to make as even a circle as you can.
  7. Line two baking sheets with baking paper and scatter half the sesame seeds over them (you could also use a non-stick baking sheet or line with a silicone mat). Put the breads, seam side down, onto the sheet, leaving at least a few centimetres space around each. Keep them covered with a slightly damp tea towel while you make the rest. Let them rise, covered, for 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210C 190C fan.*
  8. Brush the breads with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle the remaining sesame seeds over the tops. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown all over. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

*Anissa specifies an oven temperature of 450 F which is about 230 C. My oven is very hot and having tested a similar bread recipe earlier that day which resulted in very dark (almost burnt) bread after 20 minutes, I lowered the temperature and the results were good. Watch the bread as it cooks as ovens do vary. Bread generally needs a hot oven to start with.

A variety of date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

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Do you have memories of date bread for Ramadan? I’d love to hear your stories. Are there any breads you associate with special occasions?

Moroccan spiced date and beef tagine

June 2, 2018
tags: , ,

date and beef tagine with a plate of dates

The road threaded through the sand and in the distance the shapes of multi-coloured pottery shimmered in the heat haze, lined up along the edge of the tarmac. It was an excuse to stretch our legs after the long journey back from Ghadames, an ancient walled, Berber oasis town in Libya.  I hummed and hawed for a while and chose a bright blue tagine with delicate black and white hand-painted tracings on its domed lid. “You know you can’t cook in that one?” asked my friend, bursting my bubble of excitement a little. But the appeal of this beauty meant that the practical, dun-coloured cooking vessel remained behind. Wrapped in newspaper and gently inserted into my hand luggage, the decorative one flew home to Dubai with me and has decorated the top of a kitchen cupboard ever since. It reminds me of an epic journey, the incredible treasure of that country, and happier times for my Libyan friend.

So to call this recipe a tagine is a bit of a stretch as mine was cooked in a Le Creuset cast iron pot. If you do happen to have the authentic pot, this recipe will work as the temperatures are low and slow throughout.

The big flaw in my plan to explore the extensive topic of dates, including recipes, is that KP hates them. He did begrudgingly admit that the date caramel was nice and that the granola was very good. If he gets a whiff of dates being put into savoury meals that he is expected to eat, there will be fall out. Not to give the impression that he’ll stomp off or anything. It’s the air of resignation and “it’s ok I’ll sort myself out” as he reaches for the beans on toast.

Beef, dates and carrots in a tagine with a plate of dates

So I’m waiting for his verdict as I write this – but I love the warming spices which are subtly in the background, the soft vegetables and meltingly soft meat. Despite the carrots and onions, which are sweet in themselves, the dates add a depth rather than a cloying taste. I made this with beef to echo British stews made with prunes but you could use lamb. And if you want an addictively moreish sweet and sour kick, do add the date molasses and lemon at the end. You might notice that I’ve garnished with chives not coriander in the pics (as I didn’t have any and it’s 40C outside so popping to the shop was a bit off-putting). Slipping a cinnamon stick into the liquid instead of using the ground cinnamon would also be a good option (but I haven’t tried it yet), as would whole dried chilli.

Serve with some bread – soft pita breads, Arabic flat breads or a crusty loaf – or fluffy, turmeric-flecked Basmati rice.

I’ve drawn from quite a few sources for this recipe including Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco, Nadia Sawalha’s Stuffed Vine leaves saved my life. Paula’s tagine with prunes recommends beef short rib on the bone which would add even more unctuousness (and require longer cooking time). It reminded me about Paula’s gradual decline through dementia and how this legendary writer is trying to fight it with food.

Moroccan spiced date and lamb tagine

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A slow-cooked, warmly-spiced casserole which is great for week night comfort food or a casual supper for friends.

Ingredients

  • 20g unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander*
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric*
  • 750g braising steak (cut off all obvious fat from the edges but should have some marbling), cubed
  • 2  large onions, peeled and very finely sliced
  • 2.5cm root ginger, very finely chopped
  • 7-8 small carrots, halved
  • 500 ml beef stock, vegetable stock or water
  • 2 strips of orange peel, pith removed
  • 1-2 whole dried chillies*
  • 2 pinches of saffron threads soaked in 2 tablespoons of warm water
  • 3-4 large Medjool dates (use a few more if they are smaller), stoned and chopped roughly
  • salt and black pepper
  • 8 dates, stoned
  • 2 tablespoons date molasses**
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice**
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • large handful of fresh coriander, leaves picked

Directions

  1. Melt the butter in the tagine (placed on a heat diffuser on the stove) or your cooking pot and pour into a bowl. Add the olive oil, cinnamon, coriander and turmeric to the melted butter. Stir to combine.
  2. Tip the beef into the bowl and mix with your hands so that all pieces are well coated. Tip the whole lot into your casserole or tagine over a medium heat and turn the meat for a minute or two so it begins to change colour but not sizzle. Remove the meat and most of the spiced cooking fat to the bowl.
  3. Add the onion to the pot and soften gently over a low heat in the small amount of butter and oil that remains. The onion should be transparent and yielding but not brown. Add the ginger and cook for a minute. Stir in the carrots.
  4. Return the beef to the pot and pour in 400 ml of the water or vegetable stock. Add the orange peel and saffron with its soaking liquid. Slip in one or two whole dried chillies at this point if you like a bit more spice.
  5. Put the chopped dates and remaining water in a small blender (or use a tall jug and a stick blender). Whizz to a thickish, cloudy liquid and add to the pot. Season well.
  6. Bring to a simmer and cook at a low heat for 1 – 11/2 hours (or put in your slow cooker for 6-8 hours) until the meat is falling apart but not dry. 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time add the whole dates.
  7. Taste and adjust seasoning. You can serve as it is or you can add the optional date molasses and lemon juice. Start with 1 tablespoon of each, then taste and add a bit more of each until it reaches a sweet and sour depth of flavour that’s not overpowering. Alternatively you can mix the date molasses and lemon juice together in a small bowl and hand at the table for drizzling.
  8. Garnish with the toasted sesame seeds and fresh coriander leaves. Serve with bread or rice.

*These are optional. I added turmeric as this spice is used extensively in Libya, but you can leave it out.

**This is optional but adds a deep, rich, sweet and sour flavour to the dish.

date and beef tagine with a plate of dates

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Have you used dates in a savoury dish?

Orange and date fruit salad with loads of options

May 31, 2018

Date and orange fruit salad on a plate

‘It’s never too late, To succumb to a date that’s plump as a camel’s hump, And far sweeter than an old Potater.’ – Anonymous

My favourite place to eat out is at a friend’s house, and I love having people over to my place. While treating everyone to a sumptuous pudding is always something that goes down well, I’ve noticed more people are watching what they eat and fruit salads are a common dessert. This fits in with more quick-to-prepare, casual dining too.

An orange and date salad is a classic often attributed to Morocco. At its simplest there are segmented oranges with their juice, dates, a scatter of slivered almonds and a drop of orange blossom water  perhaps with a suspicion of cinnamon dusted over the top. The effort is in segmenting the oranges which I always feel is something I can dedicate to my friends – definitely a small labour of love.

Practise makes perfect and I remember honing my skills when my girls were very small and we lived in Jeddah. After a gang of toddlers came round to play, they’d all sit up at the table and watch as I carved the peel away and prised the pieces from their membranes. The juicy slivers were seized by tiny fingers and slipped down so easily that they ate them faster than I could cut them up. I’m a great believer that sugary or unhealthy food shouldn’t be idolised as treats, and this is a way of getting more fruit into little people (or anyone really).

Date and orange fruit salad, yoghurt in a bowl, dates and some cutlery

How to segment oranges (or any citrus fruit)

  1. First sharpen your knife – this is essential – and use a medium-sized cook’s knife. If you get on well with small knives you can try this, but I don’t.
  2. Cut a thin slice of peel from the top and bottom of the orange so you just expose the flesh. Sit it on a chopping board and cut the peel away from top to bottom in medium-sized strips, using even downward strokes, following the curve of the fruit. You need to cut through the peel, the white pith and just take the very first thin skin of the orange flesh. Rotate the orange as you cut round from the top to the base.
  3. Check the orange for any last bits of pith and nick them away with the knife. Discard the peel and pith.
  4. Then you have two options: either put the orange on its side and cut into round slices, or cut into segments.
  5. For the latter, hold the orange in the palm of your hand over a bowl. Very carefully slide your knife down the left edge of the first segment (with it facing upwards towards you) so the flesh is separated from the membrane. Repeat with the right hand side and the segment should come away. Tease it out with the tip of the knife and into the bowl (which is there to catch any juice). Turn the orange and repeat with all the segments – make sure you keep your fingers well out of the way.
  6. Once you are left with just the skeleton of the orange, give it a squeeze to extract any remaining juice. There’s a video demo at the bottom of this post.

Date and orange fruit salad, some dates and some cutlery

Which oranges to use

Navel or larger oranges are easier to segment but you can use any orange you like. A mix of oranges such as tangerines, mandarins or blood oranges makes for an interesting salad.

Choice of dates

You want sticky, toffee-like, soft pieces of date so Medjool are idea here. If you are lucky to get any dates at the rutab stage of ripeness, simply remove the stone, they’ll add a luxurious touch.  If your dates are very dry try soaking them overnight in some orange juice. Cutting into slivers is the usual option but you can leave in half or chop them finely (scissors can be easier for this).

Types of dressing

My favourite, and the easiest option, is to use the orange juice you’ve released from the fruit when cutting it. Adding a splash of orange blossom (flower) water is a Moroccan twist or you could use rosewater. Fresh passion fruit juice or pomegranate juice mixed with the orange juice, or alone, would complement the flavours. Lime juice would perk it up a lot but you’d definitely need to add sweetness. A little Grand Marnier or triple sec like Cointreau takes this up a notch for a dinner gathering. Another option is to make a flavoured sugar syrup…

Date and orange fruit salad on a plate with segments scattered around

How to sweeten

This depends on personal taste and how healthy you want your fruit salad to be. You may not want to sweeten this at all depending on the oranges you use. You can always up the quantity of dates for extra natural sweetness.  My favourite addition is a drizzle of raw honey. A small amount of sieved icing sugar stirred into the juice is a quick and simple option. Maple syrup would also work well.

Harking back to an earlier time, sugar syrup was always used in fruit salads. A little goes a long way so you are not consuming a vast amount per portion but it is processed sugar.

To make sugar syrup: combine a quarter of the amount of sugar to liquid – for example, 50g caster sugar to 200ml of water. For a thicker syrup use more sugar to the same amount of water. Put into a small saucepan and stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and bubble until the mixture starts to thicken (2-4 minutes).

Sugar syrup flavouring options: use half fresh orange juice (or juice of your choice) and half water. Add fresh rosemary sprigs, knob of fresh ginger (peeled), fennel pods, a vanilla pod or a cinnamon stick before heating. Leave the herbs or spices to steep in the syrup until cool and ready to use, then remove. Orange or lemon zest can be added to the liquid at the start too (and left in the syrup).

Epicurious has a short cut by using marmalade: Gently heat 4 tablespoons of marmalade over low heat for about 3 minutes, or until syrupy then stir in any reserved orange juice plus 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Off the heat, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water for a pouring consistency and let cool.

Herbs and spices

The Moroccan style recipe uses fresh mint and a little cinnamon. A few lightly crushed, green fennel pods would perfume the juice wonderfully as would a few crushed coriander seeds. I had some really aromatic, fresh rosemary in the fridge and it was gorgeous. Steep in the orange juice overnight to impart the woody, pine-like taste or scatter a few leaves, either whole or chopped over the salad (a little goes a long way here).

Steeping a knob of fresh ginger in the juice overnight would be fab. For a different spin you could drizzle with honey (see above) and scatter a few crushed chilli flakes on top. I haven’t tried thyme or juniper, but both might work well in moderation.

A bowl of dates, some rose buds and yoghurt with a honey drizzler

Toppings

Slivered or sliced almonds seem to be the usual choice for the Moroccan version but you could use a variety of nuts. I used chopped pistachios and they were excellent; crushed hazelnuts would be good too.  You can toast nuts lightly in a dry frying pan or on a tray in the oven, or just use raw. I also saw a suggestion for candied nuts: coat nuts in a mixture of coconut oil, agave nectar (honey or maple syrup) and cinnamon, and bake them until toasted.

Mint leaves look pretty and add a beautiful flavour, but so does rosemary (see above). Pomegranate seeds add crunch and juiciness.

An addition often found in the Middle East are dried rose buds or petals. They also give a beautiful scent.

Of course chocolate always goes brilliantly with orange – chop dark chocolate into shards and scatter. Toasted coconut pieces are another nice topping.

Additions and variations

In her recipe for Middle Eastern winter fruit salad, Tamasin Day-Lewis soaks dried apricots in orange juice overnight then simmers them in the liquid in a covered pan until tended before combining with segmented oranges, dates, pomegranate juice and a few seeds, fresh passion fruit juice and some finely sliced, blanched, pithless lemon and orange peel.

Fresh seasonal fruit could also be a delicious addition; try quartered figs, sliced peaches, mango or honeydew melon cubes or even halved strawberries.

Savoury salad options

Google orange and date salad and you’ll find the savoury version is most prevalent. One of the first my first cookbooks (by Arabella Boxer) suggested the classic combination of orange and watercress which is delicious.  You could also use baby spinach or general small, slightly bitter salad leaves (iceberg or larger leaves is a no-no here). I think the popularity online stemmed from Ottolenghi’s recipe in Plenty More where he adds garlic, cinnamon, fennel seeds and lettuce to the basic ingredients. Martha Stewart adds feta and chilli which sounds worth a try. The Moroccan variation is to add carrots.

Serve with…

The salad is absolutely fine on its own but Greek yoghurt or goats yoghurt (or curd) drizzled with raw honey – and good for dessert or breakfast.  Or try labneh which is easily available here in the Middle East. Serving with real Devon or Cornish clotted cream would be a luxurious touch. This fruit salad is a good accompaniment to moist cakes traditional in the Middle East made of almonds, pistachios or tahini.

Orange and date fruit salad

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A fresh, light, simple to make, Middle Eastern-inspired salad which is good for dessert or even breakfast.

Ingredients

  • 4-6 oranges (depending on size)
  • sprig of fresh rosemary (or use fresh mint as a garnish)
  • raw honey for drizzling (optional)
  • 10 Medjool dates (see above)
  • seeds from fresh pomegranate (a handful or so)
  • 2-3 tablespoons of pistachios, sliced

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut a thin slice from the top and bottom of the orange. Slice down and around the fruit removing the skin and pith. Slice into rounds or segment pieces from the membrane (see details instructions above). Catch any juice in a bowl.
  2. Pick about 7-10 rosemary leaves from the stem and stir into the orange juice. Leave to steep (overnight if possible). Reserve a few leaves for garnishing.
  3. Remove the stones (pits) from the dates and cut into slivers (or snip into smaller pieces with scissors (see above).
  4. Put the orange segments onto a serving dish or bowl. Remove the rosemary leaves from the juice and pour over.  Chill lightly until ready to serve.
  5. Drizzle with a little raw honey. Scatter the dates, pomegranate seeds, pistachios and a few reserved rosemary leaves over the salad (or the fresh mint leaves).

Orange and date salad with a bowl of yoghurt and some cutlery

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Not segmented oranges before and fancy trying it? Use the instructions above and

this video:

If you make this recipe I’d love to see it – tag mycustardpie on Instagram

Date and carrot salad with Moroccan spiced dressing

May 29, 2018

A chopping board with carrots, herbs, dates and a plate of date and carrot salad

“Carrots should not be in salad.” Another food commandment from KP that I’m still coming to terms with. My crime was adding some little chunks of local, organic, sweet, crunchy ones into a green salad. And he says he’s not fussy.

On the search for savoury date recipe inspiration I found Moroccan carrot salad in many incarnations. I was intrigued to know what made it so particular to that country.

The recipes in Paula Wolfert’s heavy tome The Food of Morocco infers that cooked carrot salads are very popular. She specifies that steaming the carrots is essential to retain their flavour, yields a soft and creamy texture, plus they soak up the spices more readily than if boiled. Parsley, lemon juice, cinnamon and cumin feature in all three of her recipes.  She also has a raw carrot salad paired with orange flower water and sultanas.

Claudia Roden in A New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking also has a boiled carrot salad and a grated carrot one she discovered from a Moroccan chef on a kibutz, which uses raisins or sultanas.  Orange blossom water, fresh coriander and lemon juice make the orange and carrot salad sound deliciously refreshing, but again no dates in sight. There are three orange salads which she attributes to Morocco too.

A chopping board with carrots, herbs and a plate of date and carrot salad

In Ottolenghi’s books (yes I have them all), he combines dates with salad leaves in several guises; nuts, pomegranate molasses, sumac, ewe’s cheese, finely sliced onions, orange blossom water, oranges and a cinnamon, fennel, lemon juice dressing are used in various combinations.

Greg and Lucy Malouf’s recipe of honey-roasted carrots with dates and dandelions – in New Feast, a book of modern, Middle Eastern, vegetarian recipes – has a Moroccan dressing which is a tart with lemon and almost savoury with spice. It’s so good I’ve shared a version below but doubled the quantity.

So this recipe is a guide which you can mix up. Use almonds or pistachios instead of hazelnuts, stir in segments of orange where the membrane has been removed and the cells of juice are exposed, shower with different herbs (coriander or finely chopped mint would be excellent), other cheeses (grilled halloumi?) or even marinate 100g of dates in a tablespoon of white wine vinegar with 1/2 a finely sliced red onion for 20 minutes (a la Ottolenghi).

My bunch of local, organic carrots from Greenheart were crying out to be left raw, so that’s where I started and added to other things I had in the house (including Balqees Orange Grove raw honey fusion in the dressing). Whether you chop, grate, dice or spiralise your carrots is entirely up to you. I made tiny slivers of mine for maximum crunch.

Did KP like it? He didn’t get a chance to try it.

Date and carrot salad with Moroccan spiced dressing

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
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A healthy, crunchy version of a Moroccan spiced classic which is good on its own, as part of a mezze board or as an accompaniment to grilled cheese or meat


Swap in different leaves, like baby spinach, nuts such as almonds or pistachios, herbs like coriander and other lactic soft cheeses. Orange segments are a good option too.

Ingredients

Salad dressing

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 30ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika (unsmoked)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried chilli seeds or crumbled dried chilli
  • a good grinding of black pepper
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of raw honey
  • a few drops of orange blossom water

Salad

  • a handful of hazelnuts
  • 2 handfuls of baby salad leaves
  • 4 medium carrots
  • 10 dates approximately (depending on their size – you’ll need fewer if using Medjool)
  • a few sprigs of fresh herbs such as thyme, chives or flat-leaved parsley
  • 4 tablespoons of goat’s curd (or other fresh, lactic soft cheese)

Directions

  1. Make the salad dressing. Crush the garlic and put into a lidded jar with the sea salt. Use a teaspoon to mash together a bit. Add the juice of the lemons and the olive oil. Measure in the spices, black pepper and give it all a good shake to combine. Add the smallest amount of raw honey and orange blossom water, shake and then taste. Adjust to the way you like it (a little goes a long way with the perfumed water).
  2. Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan over a medium flame, stirring until they are very lightly browned. Cool and chop very roughly.
  3. Wash and dry the salad leaves and place in a bowl.
  4. Peel the carrots then grate, spiralise or chop very finely and arrange over the leaves.
  5. Tear or chop the dates into small bite-sized pieces (quarters for smaller dates) and scatter over the salad, followed by the chopped hazelnuts.
  6. Crumble the cheese or curd (more of a dotting of the latter) over the whole lot and drizzle with half the salad dressing reserving the rest to add to your plate if you want more.
  7. Serve and eat immediately.

A chopping board with carrots, herbs and a plate of date and carrot saladHave you ever used dates in a salad? Can anyone from Morocco shed some light on the origins of this salad or when it is eaten? I’d love to know.

The moon, a sip of water and dates: understanding Iftar in Sharjah

May 28, 2018

 

men sitting on the floor waiting for iftar

Dusk falls in the mosque courtyard as we wait for Iftar

There’s stillness in the air despite the horde of men sitting in long rows on the carpet either side of thin, plastic tablecloths. The late afternoon light fades quickly and the anticipation builds. Finally the signal is given and, quietly but purposefully, the eating begins.

The last time I ate and drank was at lunchtime but still I’m eager for that first sip of water and the instant lift from the natural sugar of the date. The men breaking their fast beside me have gone without food and drink since the early hours of this morning, and have done a day’s work in the heat of May.  We’re on a food tour in Sharjah, the quieter neighbour of Dubai, with my good friend Arva and Frying Pan Adventures. This experience is as much about the meaning of the absence of food.

Arva demonstrates how to eat by hand neatly from our central plate of biryani. She transfers it with ease from plate, to fingers, to mouth, without dropping a grain (see video below). We’re all eager to try, with varying success. The biryani is good and we all eat hungrily. Fatima, our Emirati guide who has also been fasting all day, is very restrained and just takes a sip of water. She says she needs her coffee first.

Arriving for prayer

The Imam’s voice floats ethereally above us after a very short time. Iftar is a short ritual of fast-breaking prior to prayer. It often consists of water, laban and an odd number of dates like today. Tents and communal eating areas are arranged at the majority of mosques in every Emirate. Women generally stay at home to break their fast. The mosque we are in dates from the 1800s and is one of the largest in the area. It’s not ornate as the focus is on prayer and the men stand shoulder to shoulder before bending for their Maghrib – the special prayers during this Holy Month for Muslims. Ramadan means scorching, as in the parched feeling in the throat, and one of the reasons for fasting is to provoke empathy. If someone misses a day during Ramadan they can make it up afterwards but abstaining for a day or by giving to charity.

We leave the mosque and go to Arva’s car where she has striped cloth bags with rice and other provisions inside. The price of our tour has included this donation, and as the men start to leave we start to hand over our parcels.  I try to approach those who look as though they would really benefit from the gift, and too soon all mine are gone.

We sip gahwa or coffee from tiny cups and sample dates while Arva tests us with a quiz before taking to the streets at night.

The pitch dark of the back streets are illuminated by lozenges of light from the edges of curtains of veiled shop windows. The exception is the flourescent strip lighting of the bakeries where dough is being kneaded, rolled, stuck onto the sides of deep, hot tandoor ovens and flicked out with metal spikes. We enter one and the men respond to our interest and cameras as though they are putting a show especially for us, heaving kilos of dough into the air, twirling, folding, rolling and baking at a nimble choreographed pace. We stand outside on the street munching triangles of hot potato-stuffed or sugar-sprinkled bread.

bakers in a bakery

Bakery in full flow, taking cooked bread from the tandoor with metal spikes

people watching bakers

Bread always fascinates – our food tourists

We wind through the souk, passing the meeting place for elders where they usually sit by the water, playing backgammon and reminiscing, but right now is deserted. A brightly lit shop contains gleaming glass bottles lined on cooled shelves. They are Victorian Codd-neck in design and the pressure of the drink inside holds a glass marble in the neck to seal it until dislodged with your finger. Fatima is determined to show us how to release it but laughs as she fails to open three, then four, and we all cheer as the final one opens with a soft pop. We choose our flavour of namalat (an Arabic twist on the word lemonade) and are warned not to open it until our next destination. The temptation is great as the moisture drips down the cold bottles in the warmth of the evening.

A floating pontoon leads us to an abra. We perch on the narrow wooden bench and, as the engine growls into life, we release the stopper to drink, while Arva hands out excellent samosas and chutney.  Reflected light from the graceful government buildings streaks the water like paint as we gaze at the glowing mosque ahead, while the boat driver’s soundtrack of 1960’s Indian classics crackles from the speaker.

Dhow near water

A dhow with the government building across the water

Passing back through the quiet souk, stopping to admire various bizarre fashions along the way, we reach a courtyard where men are deep in the next set of Ramadan prayers. It’s quiet, focused and dignified. Further along we encounter men going back to their homes; one minute we’re alone and the next walking through the pacing tide. The elder’s meeting place is starting to fill up for an evening of putting the world to rights and we’re greeted as we pass by.

Emirati dishes are placed before us in our final restaurant; haleem – a wheat and meat porridge, thareed – a stew topped with very thin flakes of bread, and lgeimat – syrup coated doughnut balls. Somehow, even after an evening of continual eating, we all manage to dig in with relish. One of our group declares that the haleem is her favourite dish of the whole tour.

plates of fresh fruit

It’s easy to fence yourself off into your own little enclave in Dubai even though a couple of hundred nationalities co-exist. Being witness to such personal rituals carried out in the stillness of the evening is a privilege and an education – deliciously done as always.

More info:

Frying Pan Adventures

Heart of Sharjah

Dubai – how to experience an alternative Iftar

baker by a tandoor

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Thanks to Fatima and Aisha of Heart of Sharjah, and Arva of Frying Pan Adventures. I was invited on the test tour to give my feedback (and not expected to write or publicise).

Healthy date-sweetened, nut and seed granola

May 26, 2018

Bowl of granola over yoghurt with fruit and a spoon

My relationship with breakfast cereal is a rocky one. In the early 1900s, Mr Kellogg et al ‘invented’ a new healthy food (with a healthier profit margin) and, from then on, swathes of the world were persuaded to swap their economical, sustaining porridge for a brightly, coloured, exciting box.

We had very little processed food in our house as most things were made from scratch or preserved from the garden, but we did start the day with cereal which was heavily marketing by TV ads at the time. Tony the cartoon Tiger for sugar-laden Frosties (“they’re grrrrrreat!”), Snap Crackle and Pop extruded Rice Krispies  (“Have you heard how good they are?”) and “Tell ’em about the honey, Mummy” Sugar Puffs (sugar-laden under the pretence of something natural). We loved the rustle of the packaging, reading all the exciting things written on the box, and the sweet milk they left at the bottom of the bowl. No wonder we had fillings in our teeth.

Leaving home my tastes matured and even muesli was too sweet for me. I don’t think I have bought a box of cereal in decades – apart from the Bran Flakes that KP eats nearly every single day (from the first time I met him).

I’m sure it’s fine to drizzle something sugary over your breakfast pancakes or French toast once in a while as a breakfast treat, but granola has always seemed to be another way of justifying eating something sweet under the guise of health on a daily basis. ‘Luxury’ seems to mean copious amounts of maple syrup, honey or chocolate chips, while branded varieties can contain a large helping of sugar, processed honey and oil to bind (rain-forest wrecking palm oil usually).

Bowl of granola over yoghurt with fruit and a spoon

So why turn to granola now?

I’m at a stage in my life where I’m facing new challenges which I’d like to try fighting with diet. Things like flaxseeds and nuts are touted as superfoods but, you know me, I’m sceptical of grandiose statements of one food over another. However, Suzi Grant of Alternative Aging recommends foods rich in natural plant oestrogens (called phyto-oestrogens) to help maintain hormonal balance as the body’s levels begin to fluctuate. Flaxseeds are a great source of Omega 3 (a high level plant oestrogen) which is claimed to help to improve cholesterol levels, and all sorts of other benefits including healthier looking skin. Nuts including walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans, plus seeds such as chia, sesame and hemp seeds also contain Omega 3.  I’d like an easy and palatable way to start including these into my diet.

How much to serve per portion?

Much has been made of the calorific density of granola, as well as the health benefits, with all those nuts and seeds. As mentioned, not all granola is created equal. 30g portions are advised usually but I think you can be slightly more generous with this granola due to the absence of fat, oil or any sugar except for the naturally occurring sweetness in the dates. Bulk it out by adding other sustaining, healthy things to your breakfast bowl along with it.

What to eat with granola

  • At its simplest, just serve in a bowl with your favourite kind of milk (dairy or plant-based).
  • Sprinkle over Greek-style yogurt and fresh fruit: grated apple, pear or even carrot goes well, drizzled with raw honey or some date caramel.
  • Use almonds and almond extract in the basic granola, add dried cherries, pour over almond milk and yoghurt and top with fresh cherries.
  • Again with an almond-heavy basic granola, or just some extra almonds (slivered would be good) add dried apricots or fresh apricots.
  • Use coconut milk, coconut yoghurt, fresh tropical fruit like ripe mango and sprinkle with freshly grated or toasted, dried shredded coconut.
  • Figs, fresh or dried (or both) with toasted hazelnuts.
  • Add chopped dates, vanilla yoghurt, finely sliced pistachios and a tiny drizzle of date syrup.
  • Sliced banana with yoghurt goes so well with walnuts.
  • Stir a little rose-water into some yoghurt – it goes beautifully with the cardamom (and some pistachios).
  • Add a teaspoon of bee pollen to every serving.

KP does occasionally deviate from his beloved Bran Flakes to granola. He’s a date hater and crinkled up his nose to this.  I eventually persuaded him to taste this, which he did with utmost reluctance, and he admitted that he thinks it’s good and will eat it.  Seal of approval!

Healthy, date-sweetened nut and seed granola

  • Servings: approx. 16
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Homemade healthy, refined sugar-free and oil-free granola with the aroma of spices

The scent of the cardamom and cinnamon wafting through your house as this toasts gently in the oven is reason enough to make this. Vegan, oil-free, added sugar-free, its crunch and texture work well served simply with milk or paired with yoghurt and a range of fresh fruit for a healthy start to the day.

Ingredients

  • 230g dates with stones (200g if unstoned)
  • 300g rolled oats
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 70g chopped walnuts (or your favourite variety of nut)
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds (black or white)
  • 75g pumpkin seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 3 tablespoons flax seeds
  • 50g fresh coconut, shredded (or the dried kind)
  • 5 green cardamom pods
  • 1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon (or more to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. The night before, put the dates in a bowl and just cover with cold water and leave to soak.
  2. The next day preheat the oven to 120 C/110 F and line a baking tray with baking parchment or a silicone mat.
  3. In a mixing bowl (or the bowl of a food mixer that has a paddle attachment such as a Kitchenaid) weigh in the oats, ground almonds, nuts, seeds and coconut.
  4. Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods and bash them in a pestle and mortar to break down a little. Add the pounded seeds and cinnamon to the mixture. Stir well to combine.
  5. Strain the dates reserving the soaking liquid. Slip the stones and stems out of the dates and put them into a blender with 120ml of the reserved soaking water and the vanilla extract. Whizz to a paste, the consistency of a loose paste. Use a spatula to get every scrap from your blender into the bowl. Use the spatula to fold the date paste through the dry mixture making sure that every grain is evenly coated and combined. You can do this in your mixer with a paddle for ease.
  6. Tip the mixture carefully onto the lined tray and spread out to a roughly even layer with the spatula.
  7. Put in the oven for 1 1/2 hours in total, turning with the spatula every 20 minutes to ensure even cooking. If you use a silicone mat the cooking time might be over 2 hours. Watch carefully towards the end of cooking so the nuts do not catch (leading to an unpleasant bitter flavour). It’s ready when light golden brown and starting to crisp up.
  8. Leave to cool and store in an airtight jar.

Options:

  • When cool stir in 100 – 150g of dried fruit such as apricots, figs, barberries, cranberries or even chopped dates.
  • You can substitute other seeds or ingredients such as goji berries or leave some out.

bowl of yoghurt with date, nut and seed granola

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Let me know what you think of this if you make it. What’s your favourite healthy (ish) breakfast?