Cooking Class: It’s a date,honey

Using this fresh yellow little fruit is a surefire recipe for a sweet New Year.

Dates 311 (photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
Dates 311
(photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
For many Jews, apples are the Rosh Hashana fruit par excellence. For me, fresh dates are the fruit that herald the coming of the New Year. As soon as I see the bright yellow dates at the market, I begin to plan my menus.
I’ve heard people say they’re not fond of fresh yellow dates. I have learned to enjoy them at their khalal stage, when they are crunchy and less sweet, but I prefer to wait until they become honey-brown. At that stage, called rutab, I find them absolutely addictive; they are moist and sweet enough to almost make me swoon with pleasure.
The way to get rutab dates is to buy yellow dates and wait. With luck, they will turn to this golden-brown delight, but it seems to depend on the weather and, of course, on whether the dates were picked ripe enough. I have the most success when I buy a bunch with some dates that are beginning to turn brown.
Several varieties of dates are grown in Israel. Most people prefer the large, soft, sweet Medjool, which are delicious and easier to find than perfectly ripened yellow dates.
Dates have a traditional association with Rosh Hashana. They are one of the special foods that are blessed as part of the Rosh Hashana mini-Seder, which is customary in many Sephardi households and dates back to the Babylonian Talmud.
Savory dishes gain a festive note when they include dates. For their New Year dinner, Jews from Morocco have a tradition of serving some of the items that are blessed in an entree of couscous with seven vegetables.
The dish might include vegetables like pumpkin and leeks, as well as dates that are steamed with the couscous.
An elaborate Maghrebi specialty calls for nut-stuffed dates that are used to stuff a chicken or a large fish. For Shabbat, cooks might add dates to dafina, or Moroccan hamin, to contribute a subtle sweetness that mellows the flavor of the sauce. A dish from Baghdad from the Middle Ages calls for stewing lamb with dates and sweet spices.
Dates may have an additional, significant connection to Rosh Hashana. In most families, honey is associated with the holiday; but food historians believe that the honey referred to in the Torah’s description of Israel as “the land of milk and honey” was in fact date honey. This Rosh Hashana I will begin a new tradition in my home – alongside the usual bee honey for dipping apple wedges, I will serve date honey.
Brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews, date honey is known in Israel as silan and in Middle Eastern markets in the US as date molasses or date syrup. Varda Shilo, author of Kurdistani Cooking (in Hebrew), describes how to make it from dried dates, which are simmered in water to porridge consistency. The mixture is spooned into a cloth bag, moistened with more water and squeezed to remove the juice. This juice is simmered over low heat until thickened and is kept in jars.
Breakfast is the meal at which date honey is often enjoyed in the Mideast.
People mix some silan with pure tehina paste and serve this dip with bread. For Americans, a good breakfast use of silan is to treat it like maple syrup and drizzle it on pancakes or waffles.
Silan also has savory uses. Joan Nathan wrote in The Foods of Israel Today that one of the tastiest quail dishes she ever ate, at a reconstructed Nabatean village in the Negev, was grilled quail with date sauce, for which cumin-and-cardamom-spiced quail was served with dried figs, dried apricots and raisins in a sauce of date syrup and red wine.
The makers of silan at Kinneret Farm recommend using date honey in non-traditional ways as well – with sauteed vegetables, as a sweetener for beverages and in new creations such as sweet-potato pancakes flavored with cinnamon.
Dates are best known for their uses in sweets. They are a favorite filling for the rich Middle Eastern cookies called ma’amoul and for rolled cookies resembling rogelach that are popular around the region.
Sambusak are familiar as spicy stuffed pastries, but Iraqis make sweet sambusak as well, using dates, wrote Pascale Peretz-Rubin, author of Delicacies of Iraq.
Shaped in crescents, the sambusak are made of a yeast-risen pastry enclosing a brandy-flavored date-peanut filling and are baked with a topping of sesame seeds.
In Persia, wrote Reyna Simnegar, author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, walnut-stuffed dates are a Rosh Hashana treat. The stuffed dates are drizzled with a little syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Another popular way to serve dates is as a snack with tea.
Cooks in Egypt use the firm, fresh yellow dates to make jam, wrote Levana Zamir in Cooking from the Nile’s Land (in Hebrew). They also use them to make stuffed dates. First they remove the dates’ very thin peel with a sharp knife and cook the dates in water until they are soft. Next, they pit the dates without cutting them in half. Instead, they push the pit out with a hairpin so that each date can be stuffed with a blanched peeled almond. Then they make a cloveand- lemon-flavored syrup from the dates’ cooking liquid. One by one, the stuffed dates are carefully added to the syrup, simmered and then cooled. The sweets are served with Turkish coffee and a glass of cold water. Making them is quite an undertaking but, noted Zamir, these stuffed fresh dates are a delicacy fit for kings.
Makes 6 or 7 servings
This delicious, festive, easy-to-make dish is flavored with sauteed onion and sweet spices. Serve it as an accompaniment for roast chicken or braised meat or to stuff chickens. If using it as a stuffing, let the mixture cool completely before spooning it into the chicken.
✔ 2 pinches of saffron threads (about 1⁄4 tsp.)
✔ 21⁄2 cups hot chicken stock or broth
✔ 3 to 5 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
✔ 1 large onion, chopped
✔ 2 tsp. ground ginger
✔ 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
✔ 21⁄2 cups couscous
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 1 cup chopped dates
✔ 1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
✔ Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Crush saffron between your fingers.
In a saucepan, combine saffron and hot chicken stock; cover and let stand 20 minutes.
Heat oil in a large skillet or a stew pan. Add onion, ginger and cinnamon and saute over medium heat, stirring, for 7 minutes or until onion is soft but not brown. Add couscous, salt and pepper and stir mixture with a fork to blend. Scatter chopped dates on top.
Remove pan from heat and shake it to spread couscous in an even layer.
Bring saffron-flavored stock to a boil, pour it evenly over couscous and stir.
Cover pan tightly and cook over low heat for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let mixture stand for 4 or 5 minutes or until stock is absorbed and couscous is tender. Just before serving, fluff couscous with a fork. Add almonds and toss mixture to combine it. Season with nutmeg. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
This dish is from Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride. A variation Reyna Simnegar suggests is that instead of making the syrup, drizzle the stuffed dates with tehina sauce and then sprinkle powdered sugar and cinnamon.
✔ 225 gr. Medjool dates
✔ 1 cup halved walnuts
✔ 5 Tbsp. parve margarine
✔ 5 Tbsp. flour
✔ 1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
✔ 1 Tbsp. cinnamon (for garnish)
✔ Toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Select a nice pie dish to set up the ranginak.
Take each Medjool date and make a small vertical incision with a knife on its side. Remove the pit. Check inside the dates to be sure there are no insects.
Replace each pit with a walnut half and press the cavity with your fingers to close it. Arrange the dates vertically one next to the other in the pie dish.
Make the syrup by melting the margarine in a small saucepan and stirring in the flour and powdered sugar. Cook, stirring very often, until golden. The syrup’s consistency should resemble cough syrup. Drizzle over the arranged dates, filling all the crevices. Garnish with cinnamon and toasted sesame seeds, if desired.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.