The origin of the palm trees that bear sweet amber-colored dates is Iraq, from where they spread to the countries of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps surprising to learn that the date palm only grows along the Syrian-African rift. The tree is called nachle in Arabic, meaning “tree of life.” Apparently
Mohammed instructed his followers to nurture the palms, and according to tradition dates are still the first food eaten after the daily fast during Ramadan. Dates are so nourishing that desert nomads can subsist for a long time on nothing but them and goat’s milk. In the ancient world they used to say that the best dates came from Jericho, because of the ideal conditions there, allowing the trees’ “heads in the sky and their feet in the water” − which is to say, in an oasis.
Today, the most important date palm product aside from the fruit is silan, concentrated date syrup (date honey), prepared by cooking dates for a long time and then carefully straining the thick paste so as to get a smooth syrup. Silan is very popular in Mediterranean cuisines and is used for sweetening many dishes. To my taste, silan is preferable to honey, because of its thinner consistency and subtler taste. It dissolves in salad dressings quicker than honey and goes well in stews and with pot roasts. Furthermore, it is high in natural fructose so it is preferable to other sweeteners.
Kinneret Farm sells three different products: regular silan made of date extract and sugar; all-natural silan made of date extract with no sugar added, which is thinner and less sweet; and organic silan made from organic dates and sugar. Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu markets organic natural silan made from organic date extract with no sugar added.
Date cake with almonds & raw tahini
This wonderful cake is melt-in-your-mouth soft and has an intoxicating scent. I like to serve it slightly warm, along with sage tea and unsweetened cream.
400 grams pitted dates (preferably organic) in a vacuum-sealed package
1 2/3 cups (400 milliliters) water
2 tablespoons Amaretto
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
2/3 cup raw tahini
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
100 grams butter
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 1/2 cups (210 grams) sifted self-rising flour
For the topping and filling:
1 tablespoon melted butter
100 grams raw almonds (in their skins)
4 tablespoons cane or Demerara sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons raw tahini
2 tablespoons silan
In a medium pot, bring the dates and water to a boil while stirring. Turn off the heat and keep stirring until smooth. Add the Amaretto, cinnamon, salt and tahini; cool for 10 minutes. Add the baking soda (the mixture will swell a bit), and set aside for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, use a food processor to pulverize the almonds into little pieces (not powder). In a bowl, combine the almond bits, sugar and cinnamon; set aside. With a mixer, cream the butter and sugar on a medium speed until you get a puffy mixture. Add the eggs one at a time, beat for 3 minutes. Lower the speed on the mixer, add flour and date mixture alternately, mixing also by hand.
Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius. Generously grease a kugelhopf pan with melted butter, particularly the interior ring and the indentations. Place 6 tablespoons of the almond mixture in the pan, coating the sides and interior ring with it. You will have 2 or more tablespoons of the mixture left in the bottom; spread it evenly there. Pour half of the batter into the pan. Drizzle over raw tahini and then silan (try not to let them touch the pan itself because that will make removing the cake harder). Pour the remaining batter into the pan. Bake for 1 hour. Wait at least 30 minutes before overturning.
Zucchini stuffed with meat, dates & couscous in silan sauce
For 6-8 servings.
Only small zucchini (the native baladi variety) are recommended for stuffing. Any other type will yield a watery, inferior result. The task of scooping out zucchini is made simple with a corer with a long and rounded blunt blade, made for this purpose and available for a few shekels in markets and houseware stores.
25-30 (2 kilos) tiny baladi zucchini
2 large onions, diced small
2 tablespoons oil
300 grams ground meat
1 cup minced zucchini pulp
4 tablespoons couscous, whole or regular
3 chopped dates (Deglet Nour or Amari varieties)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pinch of cinnamon
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup (120 milliliters) silan
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Empty the zucchini with a corer until you get hollow tubes with thin sides. Saute the onions until translucent, then let cool. Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl. Stuff the zucchini with the filling up to slightly below the top. Heat oil in a small flat-bottomed pot that is oven-safe; saute the zucchini for 3 minutes on each side. In a bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and pour into the pot. Cook on a medium heat for 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 150 degrees Celcius and bake for 1 hour. Serve with couscous or white rice.
Couscous salad with dates & cashews
For 6 servings.
1 cup medium or whole couscous
1/2 cup boiling water
10 dates, pitted and chopped (Deglet Nour or Amari varieties)
80 grams unroasted cashews
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped nana (spearmint)
large bunch of arugula
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Dry-roast the cashews in a skillet over a low heat; cool and chop coarsely. Pour the couscous into a bowl, add 1/2 cup boiling water; mix lightly and place aluminum foil directly over the couscous. After 10 minutes stir with a fork and break up the clumps. If there are any remaining, crumble them between your palms with a rubbing motion.
Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl, toss with the dressing and serve.
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