I Love a Date

I
I’ve just read a fascinating article about dates, so much so that it has whetted my appetite in every sense of the word to make a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in search of the very best dates. Apparently date connoisseurs throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East consider the Khalasah – pronounced Kha-lah-sah to be the quintessential date against which all others are judged. Known as Khlas in Saudi Arabia, the name loosely translates as quintessential in Arabic. Its home is in the kingdom’s eastern province, more specifically Hofuf the main city of the Al Hasa oasis. The very best growers, roughly 100 in number come from Al Mutairfi village and are considered to be the undisputed masters. The harvest starts in May and goes right through to October. 

I adore dates, the first I tasted came in the elongated timber box lined with a scalloped doyley edging. The shiny sticky dates covered with a disc of cellophane tasted strange but deliciously exotic to a six year old. My father had brought them home as a present for Mummy after one of his rare trips to Dublin – we all crowded around and were offered one to taste. My next encounter with dates was less exotic, at boarding school a block of dates still in its cellophane wrapper was unceremoniously placed on the table for tea every Thursday. At first we had no idea what we were supposed to do, then we simply ate them on white bread and butter – surprisingly delicious – I’ve always been fond of date sandwiches ever since – immeasurably better than sandwich spread which was Wednesday’s treat!

I’ve experimented with dates on and off in biscuits, bars, tarts and cakes, but it wasn’t until my first visit Morocco, that I tasted the plump succulent Medjool date – a revelation. I thought this rich chewy jumbo date must be the most delicious of all dates but now I read that it pales in comparison to the Khalasah.

The date palm Phoenix dactylera is thought to be the world’s oldest cultivated fruit. Fossil records reveal that the date palm was widely grown in the Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia as early as the Eocene Epoch some 50 million years ago. There are many written references, among them a AKKadran cunuform text from about 2500BC, which mentions the date palm as a cultivated tree. The date palm flourishes best between 15 & 35 degrees north, principally in the arid areas of North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Souther Iraq where dates have been a staple food not only for humans but also for animals for thousands of years.

I remember watching a flock of sheep ambling onto the lawn of our hotel near Taroudant in Morocco to hoover up the windfall dates every day.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimate that there are approximately 600 different types of dates and 90 million date palms in the world, producing in excess of 3 million tons a year. 

Dates are dates are dates as far as most of us are concerned – not so in date growing countries where there are specific terms to describe different degrees of ripeness.

Khalah when the dates are almost fully grown, have started to ripen but are still fresh and crunchy. When the dates are partially ripe or fully ripe they are referred to as Rutab. Tamr yabis is the stage when the dates ripen on the tree and are left to dry – they are the least perishable of all the dates.

California also grows a considerable acreage of dates mostly Medjool and Deglet noor. The latter meaning ‘date of light’ or ‘translucent’, is medium sweet and has a sweet nutty aftertaste. I tasted some delicious ones last year when Mr Bell the charismatic Moroccan owner of the ethnic food stalls in Cork Market gave me a box for a present. He explained that during Ramadan, Muslims break the fast at sunset with a sip of water and a few dates. Finally if we are really to appreciate dates, we shouldn’t gobble them up as I’ve been known to do, instead one should let a date melt slowly in one’s mouth. At first there will be no taste, then as the date begins to warm the outer skin will become detached and slide off. Soon the soft flesh will begin to fill the mouth with flavours of honey caramel and sweet potatoes, toffee, … Try it, the texture will be a revelation, but apparently not a patch on the Khalasah – can’t wait to taste it.

Date and Walnut Cake

From The Ballymaloe Cookbook by Myrtle Allen
Makes approx. 10 slices

1 cup chopped dates
1 cup boiling water
½ teasp. breadsoda
1 cup sugar
2oz (50g) softened butter
1 beaten egg
1 teasp. vanilla essence
1½ cups flour
½ teasp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup chopped walnuts

Frosting

2½ tablesp brown sugar
5 tablesp cream
1 oz (25g) butter
⅓ cup approx. icing sugar

walnuts for decoration
Shallow tin 9 x 12 inches (23x30cm) or 2 smaller ones, greased.

Pour boiling water over the dates and add bread soda. Cream butter and sugar together and gradually beat in the egg, vanilla essence, flour, baking powder and salt. Finally add walnuts and combine with date mixture.
Bake at 375F/190C/regulo 5 for approx. 35 minutes. 

When cool ice with the frosting and decorate with walnuts.
To make the frosting: Put sugar, cream and butter in a saucepan and boil for 3 minutes. Add icing sugar and cool. Add a little more icing sugar if too liquid.

Rory O’Connell’s Date Tart

Serves 8
15 fresh dates, halved and pitted
7 egg yolks
3¼ oz (80g) castor sugar
700ml (1.25pints approx) pouring cream
½ vanilla pod, split lengthwise

Pastry
7¼ oz (205g) butter, chopped
1 oz (25g) castor sugar
1 tablespoon milk
10oz (275g) white flour

9 inch (23cm) flan tin with a removable base

For pastry, combine butter, sugar, and milk in a food processor and process until butter is in small pieces. Add flour and process until mixture just comes together in a ball. Gently knead pastry on a lightly floured surface to form a smooth ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours. Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface and line a 9 inch flan tin with a removable base. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Place the tart shell on an oven tray, line with baking paper, fill with dried beans or rice and bake at 200C for 10 minutes. Remove paper and beans and bake a further 10 minutes, or until golden.

Place dates on pastry in two circles. Cream egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy, then stir in cream and seeds from vanilla bean. Pour cream mixture into tart shell, to cover dates, then bake at 180C for about 30 minutes or until just set. Cool at room temperature before serving.

Lamb and Medjool Date Tagine, Herbed Couscous

Merrilees Parker gave me this recipe when she was guest chef here at the Cookery School.
Serves 6-8

2 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp each ground coriander and turmeric
2 tsp each ground cinnamon and cumin
2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1.5kg/3lb 5oz lamb shoulder, well trimmed and cut into 4cm/11/2in chunks
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2.5cm/1in piece peeled root ginger, chopped
3 onions, roughly chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
600ml/1 pint tomato juice
600ml/1 pint lamb or chicken stock
2 tbsp clear honey
225g/8oz Medjool dates, cut in half and stones removed

For the Couscous
350g/12oz medium couscous
juice of 2 lemons
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
600ml/1 pint chicken stock
4 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Greek style yoghurt and fresh coriander leaves, to garnish

Mix together the paprika, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and pepper in a large bowl, then tip half into a small bowl and set aside. Add the lamb to the large bowl and coat in the spices. Cover with clingfilm and chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas 3. Place the garlic, ginger and onions into a food processor and pulse until finely minced. Heat a large heavy-based casserole. Add half of the oil and brown off the marinated lamb in batches. Add the remaining oil to the pan and then add the onion mixture cook for a few minutes until softened but not coloured. Stir in the reserved spice mixture and cook for another minute or so until well combined.

Pour the tomato juice and stock into the pan and then add the honey, stirring to combine. Bring to the boil, cover and transfer to the oven. Cook for 1 hour, then stir in the dates and cook for another hour until the lamb is completely tender and and sauce has thickened and reduced. Season to taste.

To make the couscous; place it in a large bowl and add four tablespoons of the oil and the lemon juice. Mix well ensuring that all the grains are completely coated. Heat the stock in a small pan and season generously. Pour over the couscous and allow to sit in a warm place for 6-8 minutes until all the liquid has absorbed, stirring occasionally. To serve, stir in the remaining oil and the herbs into the couscous and arrange on plates with the tagine. Finally garnish with a dollop of the Greek yoghurt and coriander leaves.

Marzipan Dates

Makes 28
Use up your scraps of almond paste on these Marzipan Dates. 

28 fresh dates
4 ozs (110g) almond paste or marzipan (see recipe)
Castor sugar

Split one side of the date and remove the stone. Roll a little piece of marzipan into an oblong shape so that it will fit neatly into the opening. Smooth the top and roll the stuffed date in castor sugar. Repeat the procedure until all the dates and marzipan are used up. Serve as a petit four or as part of a selection of home-made sweets. 

Almond Paste
225g (8oz) ground almonds
225g (8oz) castor sugar
1 small egg
A tiny drop of pure almond essence
1 tablespoon Irish whiskey

Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the egg, add the whiskey and 1 drop of pure almond essence, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all of the egg). Sprinkle the work top with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.

Medjoul Dates with Pistachio

Dip the top of the stuffed date in finely chopped pistachio nuts.
Serve as above

Date pudding with cardamon toffee sauce

Serves 8-10
6 ozs (170g) dates, pitted and chopped
1 teasp. bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)
8 fl ozs (250ml) boiling water
2 tablesp. butter
6 ozs (170g) castor sugar
2 free range eggs
6 ozs (170g) self-raising flour
½ teasp. vanilla extract

Cardamon toffee sauce
4ozs (110g) butter
6ozs (175g) dark soft brown, Barbados sugar
4ozs (110g) granulated sugar
10ozs (275g) golden syrup
8fl.ozs (225ml) cream
½ teasp. vanilla extract
4 cardamon pods, crushed

7 inch (18cm) square cake tin, well buttered.

Mix the dates with the bread soda.
Pour water over dates and leave to stand.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
Beat in the eggs one by one.
Gently fold in flour, stir in date mixture and vanilla, and pour into the prepared cake tin. Bake at 180C (*425F) for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 160C (350-375F) for a further 10 minutes approx.

Meanwhile bring sauce ingredients to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes.
Cut pudding into squares and place on warm serving plates.
Discard cardamon pods, pour sauce over the pudding and serve.

Hot Tips

Slainte Handmade Health Cuisine, Clonakilty, Co Cork - specialising in Gluten/wheat free, Dairy free, Sugar and Yeast free products – a range of cakes , breads and quiches, using locally produced organic products where possible. Also special orders birthdays, Christmas and Halloween, gift baskets…. Tel 087-758 8846 slaintehandmade@yahoo.com  

Dunbrody Abbey Cookery School, Dunbrody, Campile, New Ross, Co Wexford
Tel 051-388933
Autumn Course programme now available theneptune@eircom.net  www.cookingireland.com  

Tullamore Country Fair – this Farmers and Producers Market is held every Saturday in Millennium Square in Tullamore, Co Offaly

Mullingar Market – moves to new location in Harbour Place shopping Centre, every other Sunday from 3rd October.

Foolproof food

Date and Banana with Yoghurt

Serves 4-6
4-5 bananas
8 ozs (225g) stoned dates, fresh or dried
½ pint (300ml) yoghurt
a little cream

Arrange alternate layers of thinly sliced bananas and halved dates in a serving bowl. Spoon a little cream and yoghurt all over and chill for a few hours before serving. The yoghurt will soak into the fruit and give it a soft slightly sticky texture – sublime!

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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