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Moroccan spiced date and beef tagine

June 2, 2018
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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?

The ultimate guide to date caramel

May 23, 2018

Jug of almond milk and bowl of date caramel

She’s got a nerve hasn’t she. If you are raising an eyebrow at this headline after the reference to hyperbole in my last post, I don’t blame you.

It’s surprising how many reams of text, plaudit and variations, that a simple date puree (because that is what this is) can elicit. While my desk might be a terrible mess, my collation of every inch of information is spruce so I hope you find it useful.

This sauce/spread/frosting is worth having in your fridge as it’s incredibly useful and more delicious than its meagre combination of ingredients would appear.  It’s also very virtuous and ticks all the vegan, fat-free, processed-sugar-free, dairy-free boxes and also ‘time-consuming-to-make’ free.

Which dates to use

Use the juiciest, stickiest, soft dates you can get your hands on. Medjool would be great. Rutab dates would be amazing. If in any doubt, pour boiling water over to cover and leave them for to soak for a few hours or overnight.

Blender or food processor?

There is different advice about which machine to use. Some advocate using a food processor which I did for this batch. I found that, however much I whizzed the mixture, I couldn’t eradicate some of the tiny pieces of date peel. It still made a nice fudgy, reasonably smooth texture. The other way is in a blender (such as a Vitamix) but this will require adding more liquid so you’ll get a runnier outcome. If you are making a runny sauce with very soft dates (pitted and soaked) you can get away with lots of liquid and an immersion blender. If too liquid, this firms up well in the fridge but will start to ‘melt’ as it comes to room temperature.

What’s the difference between date caramel, date icing (frosting) and date sauce?

Just the amount of liquid you put in. Less for date (icing) frosting, more for date caramel and even more for date sauce. For date fudge or truffles there is no added liquid (except for things like vanilla extract).

Slices of apple, dates and date caramel

Variations of date caramel

  • At it’s simplest, date sauce can just be dates and water blended until smooth.
  • Add different milks to taste. Unsweetened nut milks work well and will keep your caramel vegan, but you can use dairy milk or even cream.
  • Vanilla extract (not essence which has a synthetic taste) or the scraped out seeds from a vanilla pod, adds another layer of subtle, caramel-like flavour.
  • Chocolate date caramel frosting – add 65g cocoa powder and some vanilla extract after the first blend and whizz until smooth.
  • Add coconut – add 15g of dessicated coconut and use coconut milk. This makes a great frosting for cakes.
  • Salted caramel – use 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt (instead of just a pinch) and some vanilla extract. Plus you could add…
  • Nut butter – for a creamier, more substantial frosting add 60g of nut butter such as cashew or almond. Tahini adds texture and a different flavour too.
  • Salted caramel and peanut butter – add a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter plus a bit of extra salt.
  • Boozy date caramel – substitute some or all of the liquid with rum, bourbon, whisky, brandy or even something like Frangelico or Bailey’s.
  • Raw caramel fudge – equal parts of stoned dates and macadamia nuts, blended until smooth, pressed into a baking tray, frozen for 4-6 hours and then cut into squares.

Bowl of date caramel with a slice of apple

Uses of date caramel

  • Drizzled over popcorn
  • A dipping sauce – for fresh apple slices, celery stalks, bananas, soft fruit like strawberries or something sweeter like marshmallows
  • Icing (frosting) for a cake (or as a filling) or doughnuts
  • As a sweetener for hot chocolate
  • Sandwiched between biscuits (cookies)
  • Baked date caramel pudding (Google for recipe) – vegan or made with butter
  • Stirred into overnight oats, Bircher muesli, chia pudding or any other breakfast bowl.
  • A natural sweetener for porridge
  • As a delicious spread on hot, buttered toast
  • Drizzle over pancakes or waffles
  • As a topping for ice cream (vanilla works so well)
  • Layer your date caramel with chocolate nut topping to make fudge cups
  • Healthy toffee apples
  • Over profiteroles (there are vegan recipes online too if you want dairy-free)
  • Stirred into Greek yoghurt
  • Spooned over goat’s curd or paired with tangy goat’s cheese
  • Natural sweetener for smoothies, lassi or milkshakes
  • Salted caramel truffles – or any kind of date balls. This is a particularly good one. Soak dates and roasted, unsalted cashews (3/4 dates to 1 amount of cashews) in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly and add to a food processor pulsing until a paste is formed (doesn’t have to be totally smooth). Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar or to taste (coconut or other kind of brown sugar),  a good splash of vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. Whizz shortly to combine then roll the dough into small balls. If too soft to roll, refrigerate for 10 minutes and after rolling put them on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and pop back in the fridge for another 10 minutes. Barely melt some chocolate in a double boiler (you can add a very little coconut oil to it for a glossier finish) and dunk the truffles to cover – or just drizzle some over each one. You can sprinkle immediately with a little more sea salt too. There are various different recipes for these, some with less ingredients, some with more such as tahini. You could also roll the balls in cocoa powder.

Date caramel

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A simple to make, unprocessed sugar free, vegan caramel which is adaptable and versatile.


See list above for all sorts of variations and adaptations.

Ingredients

  • 240g dates – approx 20, unless using Medjool which will be 10 or less
  • 8-10 tablespoons almond milk (or other milk of your choice)
  • pinch sea salt

Directions

Unless at rutab stage of ripeness or very soft, pour boiling water over the dates and leave to steep for an hour or longer.

  1. Remove the stones and any stalks from the dates.
  2. Place the dates into a food processor or blender (see above) and whizz briefly. Add the rest of the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, blending in between each addition and using a spatula to scrape down the sides, until you reach the consistency of soft caramel. Add more liquid for pouring, less for spreading, even less or none for frosting. Firm up in the fridge or use immediately.
  3. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.

date caramel and apple on a board Since discovering this simple sweetener, it’s going to be a staple in my fridge. Have you tried it or were you oblivious like me? Let me know (tag me on Instagram if you share a picture of it).

 

Date and walnut loaf

May 21, 2018

wooden board with date and walnut cake in slices

In this age of hyperbole, describing something as plain might be perceived as a negative. It pales into the background in an arena of ‘best ever’, ‘decadent’, indulgent’ and ‘sinful’ cakes, but that’s exactly what Tamasin Day-Lewis says about this loaf in her introduction. Her recipes are a staple in my kitchen (I have five of her cook books) so I had every confidence that this loaf would deliver – in spades. You see I also think that plain is a good thing, especially in tea loaf. Plain means you need a cup of tea (or coffee) to perfectly partner your slice to get you through the morning or afternoon. Plain, after all, encompasses such classics as rich tea biscuits and digestives. And plain has another advantage. It practically begs for you to smear it with a thick layer of butter.

“A plain but good sweet and nutty cake that you may also eat with butter and which you can stir up in a trice. Child’s play” is a preface that has me rooting out a loaf tin and preheating the oven immediately.

On that very topic, while I love Tamasin’s writing and her recipes usually guide you by the hand as though your Mum was whispering the instructions in you ear, this one was uncharacteristically sketchy. It didn’t even mention the oven temperature, but that’s what recipe testing is all about.

Originally I renamed this recipe a ‘tea loaf’ as I thought that a tea loaf was part of afternoon tea. However, I think a tea loaf refers to a cake that is made by soaking dried fruit in tea overnight first, such as Welsh Bara Brith, Irish Barmbrack or a Yorkshire tea loaf. A tea loaf is very moist and fruity, this loaf is much drier but that’s why…. butter.

Which variety of date to use for this? Mine were Khalas, soft, sticky and slightly chewy. I haven’t used rutab stage of ripeness which would give a very different texture.

This loaf is a firm, close textured, warming and comforting that’s not sticky despite the dates. It is excellent with good butter, but also with goat’s curd or labneh. A thin slice of hard cheese wouldn’t go amiss either. Just don’t forget to put the kettle on.

Date and walnut loaf

  • Servings: 8-10 slices, makes a 900g loaf
  • Difficulty: easy
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A loaf packed with the goodness of dates and nuts, and a warmth of spices, that begs to be spread with butter and eaten with a cup of tea.

[Simple to make by hand, but even easier with a stand-mixer (instructions for KitchenAid included). Adapted from Tamasin Day-Lewis]

Ingredients

  • 225g (8oz) (approx 240g before destoning) pitted dates, chopped
  • 110g (4oz) light brown or muscovado sugar
  • 140g (5oz) unsalted butter
  • 2 level teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 120ml (4floz) boiling water
  • 1 large egg (free range), beaten
  • 400g (14oz) plain or wholemeal flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 55g (2oz) walnuts, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (not essence)
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

Directions

  1. Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the chopped dates, sugar, butter and bicarbonate of soda into a mixing bowl (or the bowl of your mixer). Pour over the boiling water and stir thoroughly (or mix briefly and slowly using the paddle attachment). Leave to soak overnight if possible, or for a least an hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170 C or 160 C (fan). If you have a fast oven go for the lower temperature as this is a long bake and high temperatures will cause the dates to burn.
  3. Grease and line a loaf tin (22 x 14 cm or thereabouts) with baking paper/parchment.
  4. Add the egg, sift in the flour (I found it easy to take the bowl off the mixer, place a sieve on top and sift in the weighed flour). Add the salt, chopped walnuts, vanilla extract and mixed spice and beat the mixture well with the paddle attachment on a mixer or a wooden spoon. The batter should look silky and become quite stiff.
  5. Scrape the mixture into the loaf tin and level the top with a spatula. You could push some whole walnuts in a line down the top at this stage if you wanted.
  6. Bake for an hour or until a skewer, when inserted, comes out clean. Do not over bake.
  7. Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then turn out, remove the baking paper and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight tin.

*Mixed spice is a traditional British mixture of spices used for making cakes. It is typically made up of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.

wooden board with date and walnut cake in slices

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So are you with me on the virtues of plain?

A short guide to date varieties

May 20, 2018
tags:

Four types of date on a plate

I must confess to having food geek tendencies. When in a car, driving to Sharjah with my friend Arva to do one of her food tours, I confessed to her that I had, on a spur of the moment whim, set myself a goal of posting about dates for every day during Ramadan. Instead of telling me what a crazy idea this was she exclaimed “That’s great”, with genuine enthusiasm and started to regale me with some of the fascinating details about this fruit that has played such a central part in so many cultures. If I’m a food nerd, she’s a food geek crossed with a brain that functions as an encyclopedia. She even told me the origin of the name and rattled off the Latin – it’s Phoenix Dactylifera by the way.

This tale of the name is a long and complicated one so I’ll save it for another day. Arva also suggested you should use different types of dates for different recipes which led onto the topic of the stages of ripeness (see below).

We got to Sharjah in the shimmering late afternoon. The deep waters of the creek reflected the grand domed buildings on the opposite side. Abras (small ferry boats) and dhows (larger wooden boats) bobbed lazily in their moorings. The shadows were long and all was very peaceful; a gentle, calming prelude to the end of another day of fasting during Ramadan.

Everyone gathered and the tour started, taking in the historic, old Heart of Sharjah, the large mosque dating from the 1800s and the souqs (markets). More about this anon.

We were sitting drinking gahwa – the local coffee which the mother of our Emirati guide Fatima, had ground the beans (from Sri Lanka) by hand for us. While we sipped the refreshing, slightly fruity, hot drink from little paper cups, Arva ambushed us with a pop quiz about dates.  If you are going on her tour you might not want to read the following (unless you want to cheat and get full marks that is). We tasted…

dates on a plate with their names

Three varieties of dates

  • Medjool rutab – one of the most famous dates and this is unsurprising. The ones we tasted were plump, soft and juicy, with a luxurious, melt in your mouth texture. There’s a brightness about the taste which offsets the sweetness so they’re not cloying. And they are absolutely huge.
  • Ajwa – a small, dark, almost black date with a smooth skin. It gives an intense, deep treacle-like flavour as soon as you pop it in your mouth. Very smooth in taste and texture.
  • Sukkary rutab – very sweet, juicy and yielding. Sukkary dates are the very sweetest – and indeed sukkary means ‘the sweet one’. The distinctive yellowish skin of this acorn-shaped date is very creased, and because of the crystallised sugars they contain can be slightly crunchy.
  • Sukkary dried – we also tasted a dried or tamer sukkary date to compare the difference. They were chewier and some crunchiness was very apparent especially near the stem. The concentration due to being dried meant they were even sweeter.

The Khalas (or Khlas) variety is very popular in the UAE, with a soft, sticky texture and caramel flavour, many consider it to be best; other varieties include Nghal, Barhi, Khnaizi, Loulou, Yabri, Bu ma’an, Shaishi, Bucheebal (there are hundreds of varieties and they are often known by different names depending on the country). This is why it’s called a short guide; the full version would be a life’s work.

The stages of ripeness in dates

  • Hababawk – when the date is really tiny*
  • Khalal (or khalaal) – the green unripe stage, and some people like to eat them, especially the older generation of Emiratis, but it’s an acquired taste
  • Besr – this is when the date is just starting to ripen on the tree, it changes colour and is still crunchy
  • Rutab (ratab) – the fresh date is fully ripe in taste and colour; lusciously soft and juicy within a papery thin skin.  They are only available for a few short weeks in the summer months
  • Tamr (or tamar) – is the dried date that we are most used to. Some of the moisture has evaporated so the dates can be stored. There are very many textures of dried dates.

*Arwa, an Emirati friend, gave me this term

Date quiz

Here are the questions – as dates are such a huge topic the answers and the discussion that followed is abbreviated but you get the gist.

A question of sex

Avra asked us whether if dates palms are male or female? There are both types and some varieties are bisexual so to speak. The male palms don’t bear fruit and one male tree can fertilise around fifty female trees. Dates can be planted from a seed but then the origin and sex of the tree can’t be predicted, so they are usually grown from cuttings that grow from the base of the plant. Emiratis plant date palms wherever they have space, on grass verges and small patches of land outside their houses. Early one morning you might spot a man hauling himself up the trunk of a tree by a kind of long belt; as the fruit-bearing females are most desirable, dates are usually pollinated by hand using the efflorescence from the male tree.

Not a cheap date

The Ajwa dates are the most expensive, even more than the prized Medjool. This is because they are from Medina in Saudi Arabic and were the favourite of the Prophet Muhammed. The name means to ‘wean off’ as dates were often used to wean children off their mother’s milk. *The date palm is mentioned more than any other fruit-bearing plant in the Qur’an. The date is referred to as tuhfat Maryam (precious gift to Mary, Mother of Jesus) as it was this fruit that nurtured her throughout childbirth (al-Tha’alibi Thimar 1 106).

Blame the parents

Where does the name Medjool come from? As the palm tree can originate from a seed, and through cross-pollination of different trees, lead to new varieties (very like the grapevine), no one really knows where it first came from. However this uniquely delicious date was named ‘prized orphans’ due to its unknown lineage.

A thorny subject

Yes, dates do have thorns which grow around the central bud or heart at the very top of the tree. If the heart is removed or damaged the tree will die.

How would you have fared in the quiz?

Three types of dates on a plate

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We left Sharjah for Dubai, the main roads unusually quiet as people had returned to their homes and families to eat and congregate. Arva fetched some date samples from the fridge in her house (fresh, rutab dates must be kept cool to preserve them) to send me home with. I also clutched a slender, volume under my arm, called Dates-A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah. There is so much still to learn about this plant that has sustained people over centuries. On awakening I read two chapters and on my dog walk with Hazel I was peering at date flowers and inspecting the green fruit very carefully.

Next time I’ll get top marks in the date quiz – I hope.

*Source: Sweet delights from a thousand and one nights – Habeeb Salloum, Muna Sallloum and Leila Salloum Elias

Two dressings for salad: Citrus date and balsamic date

May 19, 2018

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

If you type ‘date recipes’ into the search bar in Pinterest you’ll be inundated with energy balls, no bake bars, raw brownies, shakes, smoothies and masses of paleo stuff (also a few for date night). It’s all very sweet – perhaps unsurprisingly as dates are. However, if you know me at all, the absence of a sweet tooth means that I’m looking for some savoury options. Apart from bacon wrapped dates (which, although delicious, are not very appropriate during Ramadan) the non-dessert recipes using dates are a bit thin on the ground.

Historically, there were no division of courses and sweet dishes were served throughout the meal. Many foods were a mixture of sweet and savoury. In Tudor times many new foods and spices were being discovered and imported, such as nutmeg and sugar from the New World. Henry the Eighth’s banqueting table would have been filled with things like loin of veal adorned with sugar plums and pomegranate seeds, sweet potatoes with rose and orange syrup, and veal “chawettys” – a meat pie made with minced veal, dates and raisins.

My thoughts turned to salad dressings; after all, honey and mustard dressing is one of the most popular so why not use dates as the sweetener? I tinkered with a few versions in my kitchen but couldn’t get it quite right. Then I found a video on YouTube for a recipe so simple, I didn’t believe it would be that great, but was proved wrong. I’m ambivalent about it being oil-free, but you might like this. It packs a citrussy zing that’s fresh and bright poured over greens like lettuce or cucumber. Salads with carrots or parsley (or both) will benefit too as the orange pairs perfectly.

You don’t have to stick with orange and lemon either. Pink grapefruit, or even yuzu if you can get it, would work well.

A dressing that stands up to some stronger salad ingredients like shredded cabbage or radishes is one based on balsamic vinegar. This is from Anna Jones’ book A Modern Way to Eat which is one of the most well-used cookery books in my kitchen. She uses it to coat a crunchy salad based on pad thai but without the noodles. You could leave out the chilli if you want to make it more all-purpose.

Both dressings don’t do well hanging around so best to use immediately.

Citrus date salad dressing

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A fresh, light, zingy, oil-free dressing to pour over salad leaves.

Chopping the dates up a bit first is important. You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it until smooth but, because of the small quantity, it can easily heat up in a Vitamix so don’t try putting them in whole.

Ingredients

  • 2 oranges, juiced
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 4 dates, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

  1. Add the juice of the lemon and oranges (or whichever citrus juice you use) to your blender. You should have about 250ml of liquid.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates and chop quite finely (see notes).
  3. Put the dates and salt into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  4. Blend until combined (but don’t whizz for too long in case the dressing starts to heat). This is not a thick dressing as there is no oil to emulsify it. You could add some olive oil to make it thicker at this point (give it a good shake to combine).
  5. Use immediately. Really good with soft salad leaves like lettuce or watercress.

A jug of citrus salad dressing

And here’s a good all-rounder especially for crunchy salads.

Spicy balsamic date dressing

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A robust and moreish dressing which is delicious poured over chopped cabbage, carrot, radishes and other crunchy salads.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly. In theory you could pound the dates and chop everything finely by hand if you can be bothered.

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe, plump dates, stones removed and coarsely chopped
  • 100g cashew nuts, soaked overnight in water
  • a small knob of fresh ginger (about 2cm) peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 fresh red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 150ml water

Directions

  1. Put all the ingredients into a blender and whizz until smooth. It should be loose enough to pour but thick enough to coat your salad veg. Add a little more water if needed.
  2. Use immediately

chopping board with jug of salad dressing and cucumbers

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Sources:  A Tudor Banquet, Anna Jones

This is my second post for my 30 days of dates challenge. Please feel free to join in and share your date recipes here or on Instagram. Have you used dates in a salad dressing? Are you a sweet or savoury person?

Date and vanilla lassi

May 18, 2018
tags: ,
glass of date lassi and plate of biscuits

Date and vanilla lassi

We had a box of dates, once a year at Christmas, when I was growing up. They came in a long, thin, lidded, cardboard case with rounded corners, and were arranged along the sides of a plastic stem which doubled-up as a two-pronged fork to save your fingers from stickiness. They were always from Tunisia; I’m not sure who ate them.

As I wander along the aisle of my local supermarket now, the date section is mind-bogglingly with choice; shelves laden with a huge array of different types, shapes, sizes, descriptions and prices. There are more than 1,500 varieties of dates worldwide, and about 42 million date palms in the U.A.E. I’m writing this as steamy dusk falls (it’s 32 C) and the first Iftar of Ramadan is about to begin. It’s impossible to imagine how people survived here, before air conditioning, with just the breezes caught by tall vents made of palm fronds, called wind towers, to cool them. Resources were precious with dates, camel milk and coffee at the heart of life.

It’s traditional for Muslims to break their fast by eating three dates, as the Prophet Muhammed did.  Dates are offered at communal Iftars, given as Ramadan gifts and as an ingredient of different pastries and sweets, which is why they abound on the supermarket shelves.

People who have grown up with dates (not just at Christmas) have a different attitude to them. They eat them at all stages of their growth: green and under-ripe, while still crunchy and fresh, ripened and juicy, and dried and sticky. Which country the best dates come from is hotly contested.

three glasses of date lassi on a trayI’ve had a big tub of dates from Saudi Arabia in my kitchen, left over from a photography session, and they’ve started to creep into my cooking and food preparation – not just as a mid-afternoon snack. It got me thinking of how many ways to use them and perhaps a series of date recipes. Can I do thirty days of dates? Let’s see. It would be a challenge, and I respond to a challenge. Are you up for it?

My first recipe is a simple one, a cooling lassi to temper the heat of food and climate. The alchemy of the ingredients is magic though – like smooth caramel, vanilla ice cream in a glass.

It’s based on the Punjabi style lassi without the addition of water. I’ve used a mixture of milk and yoghurt but also tried it with 100% laban (a drinking yoghurt that’s readily available here). You could use plant-based milk products as well.

The level of sweetness depends on you. Indian sweets are tooth-achingly so – and some lassi recipes call for an amount of sugar, honey or dates which is way too sickly for my tastes. If you are pouring over ice you can get away with it being a little sweeter though. You need a powerful blender to make it (I use a Vitamix). Pour a little boiling water over the dates and leave them to soften overnight if your machine is a little on the wimpish side.

Please don’t use vanilla essence or flavouring; the taste will put a synthetic dampener on the whole thing. You can make your own vanilla extract (it’s not sold in supermarkets here in Dubai due to the alcohol base). Local Dubai kitchenware shop Tavola sells a real version which is alcohol-free.

A pinch of sea salt wouldn’t go amiss here either, for a salted caramel vibe.

Date and vanilla lassi

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
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A cooling drink with a deep, caramel flavour. It's more of a dessert-style drink than a regular smoothie. Frothy, creamy and good served over lots of ice.

You’ll need a high-powered blender to whizz it smoothly.

Ingredients

  • 250ml Greek yoghurt (or plant-based alternative)
  • 250ml milk (use full-fat regular milk or another of your choice e.g. almond milk)
  • 7-10 dates (depending on how sweet the dates are and your taste)
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract (or seeds from a vanilla pod)
  • Generous pinch of sea salt (optional)

Directions

  1. Measure the yoghurt and milk (or 500ml laban) into your blender.
  2. Remove the stones from the dates. This is easy (if sticky) to do with your hands – just pull the dates apart to reveal the stone, pick it out and discard.  Put the dates into the blender (it’s important that the liquid goes in first for machines like a Vitamix).
  3. Add the vanilla extract (or seeds) and salt if using.
  4. Blend really well until the lassi is really smooth and frothy.
  5. Pour into 2 or 3 glasses over lots of ice. Drink immediately.

Three glasses of frothy date and vanilla lassi

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I used a very low aperture (blurry backgrounds) on these images and a Kim Klassen preset which is quite desaturated and moody. I really like the look but interested to know what you think.

Are you with me for the date marathon? Is a whole month (during Ramadan) of daily posts possible (or even desirable?!). Do you remember the date boxes (do they still exist?).