When I decided to make Maggie’s Momma’s Pinwheel cookies last month, I purchased a large bag of dried pitted dates to get the job done. Turns out, that recipe made a whopping 5 dozen cookies, (enjoyed by many in our home, including a wily three-year-old grandson, who loved reaching into the jar to snatch one or two) and required less than half the bag in the process.
What to do with the rest of those dates? It’s not that I mind storing them in my pantry; dates do keep well. But it seemed like a good opportunity to use them in other applications—and not just desserts.
Despite their dulcet nature, dates are healthful to eat, providing an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. They are fat and cholesterol free. While they may seem like sugar bombs, dates have a low glycemic index too.
It didn’t take long for me to come up with two delicious uses. In both instances, a particular spice paired with the fruit, making each dish exceptional.
The first recipe, Jeweled Jasmine Rice, is taken from my cookbook. I made it with a variation. I used basmati—it’s what I happened to have at the time. But really, any aromatic rice would work splendidly. I warmed a trio of dried fruits–apricots, craisins, and dates, oh my–in a skillet with turmeric and pistachios. Wonderful scents filled the kitchen.
Once the rice is cooked, fold in the spiced mixture. The fruits do glisten like jewels.
Here’s the trick to light fluffy rice–with grains separate, not clumped. Soak and rinse. My friend Muna taught me this long ago. It makes the rice more receptive to flavors, and will cook in less water.
In our mostly vegetarian household, we love this dish on its own. But it makes a terrific accompaniment to something grand and meaty.
Serve this with ginger-roasted chicken, a plank of seared salmon, roast leg of lamb, or grilled pork tenderloin and chutney.
The second is baby spinach salad with dates and toasted almonds, adapted from the popular Jerusalem cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi.
My cousin Cathy served this to me last summer and I went crazy for it. It’s unlike any salad I’ve ever had, and I didn’t immediately identify the dates in it.
I learned that they are lightly “pickled” with red onion and a pinch of salt. A clever move: Pita bread, torn into bite sized pieces, becomes this salad’s crouton. It gets a crispy turn in the skillet with almonds and the Middle Eastern staple—sumac. It is prized for its tart, almost lemony taste and dark red color. Look for it at any global market or grocer.
Something about how the sweet and savory elements combine in this salad made me think “Bacon?” but only for a moment. What it achieves is Umami–savory deliciousness.
The salad is simple to make and a pleasure to eat.
Do you have a date recipe you’d like to share, or a recommendation? Despite making two of these salads and a big batch of rice, I still have dates-a-plenty in my pantry.
In the meantime–it’s a new year!
Here’s my wish for you:that 2016 is full of health and happiness, and, of course, good food.
JEWELED AROMATIC RICE adapted from Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 ½ cups aromatic rice, such as jasmine or basmati, soaked in a bowl of water for 10 minutes and rinsed
4 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup pistachios
1/3 cup pitted dates, chopped
1/3 cup dried apricots, slivered
1/3 cup raisins, craisins or currants
1 teaspoon turmeric
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add onions, garlic, and salt. Sauté until onions become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rinsed rice, and stir to coat the grains with other ingredients. Pour in the water and stir well. Increase heat and cover.
When the water comes to a boil, reduce heat to very low. Simmer for 5 minutes. Keep covered and remove from heat. Let the rice sit undisturbed for at least 10 minutes.
Melt butter in a skillet on medium heat. Stir in pistachios and cook for about 5 minutes, letting them “toast.” Stir in apricots, raisins and turmeric. When all of the ingredients are well combined, remove from heat.
Fluff the cooked rice with a fork. Fold in sautéed mixture and serve.
Makes 8-10 servings
JERUSALEM SALAD adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
1 tablespoon wine vinegar (can be red or white)
½ medium red onion, thinly sliced
3 ½ ounces dates, preferably Medjool, pitted and quartered lengthwise
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 small pitas, roughly torn into 1 1/2 -inch pieces
½ cup whole unsalted almonds, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sumac
½ teaspoon chile flakes
5 to 6 ounces baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put vinegar, onion and dates in a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt and mix well with your hands. Leave to marinate for 20 minutes, then drain any residual vinegar and discard.
Meanwhile, heat butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add pita and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring all the time, until pita is golden. Add almonds and continue cooking until pita is crunchy and browned and almonds are toasted and fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat and mix in sumac, chile flakes and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside to cool.
When ready to serve, toss spinach leaves with pita mix in a large mixing bowl. Add dates and red onion, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the lemon juice and another pinch of salt. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately.
Makes 4-6 servings