Dates are a staple of the Ramadan table and a symbol of hospitality throughout the Middle East, where guests are traditionally greeted with dates and tea.
The fruit has been cultivated since prehistoric times and records of the earliest harvests can be traced to the Middle East, where the dry heat provides ideal conditions for date palms to grow.
Dates were an essential part of the nomadic diet, providing a significant amount of fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Eaten both fresh and dried, the latter provided sustenance on long overland journeys. The prophet Mohammed was said to begin his Ramadan iftar with either three or five dates and many Muslims follow suit as the quickly available sugar helps to balance blood sugar after a day of fasting.
Dates are a delicious and convenient treat on their own, but they can also play a starring role in hearty savory recipes. Below are a few of my favorite savory date recipes that are perfect for iftar, suhoor or anytime of year.
Locally grown:How volunteers are preserving unique taste of Arizona date history
Adas polo with tahdig recipe
This lentil- and date-studded basmati rice is a classic Iranian recipe. While some people also like to add ground meat, my mother-in-law’s recipe is vegetarian. And why not? There’s plenty of protein in the lentils. The resulting dish offers a gorgeous variety of textures and sweet, savory flavors. It’s hearty enough to be a meal on its own, but also makes a great accompaniment to grilled meats and vegetables.
For added flair and wonderful crunch you can make this rice with tahdig, the vied-for crispy rice crust that crowns the best Persian polos. I’ve given instructions for making tahdig below, but if you’re short on time and would rather skip it, simply cook the rice and lentils for a minute or longer or until tender, but not mushy. After folding the rice and lentils together, your dish is ready to serve.
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 1½ cup green lentils, picked over and rinsed
- olive oil
- 1 medium white onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 6-12 Medjool or other soft, meaty dates, roughly chopped
- Pinch of cinnamon
- Black pepper, to taste
- Soak rice in a bowl of salted water for 20 minutes or up to two hours.
- In the meantime time, parcook your lentils. Bring three to four cups of water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook over high heat for about 15 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.
- In a large pot or Dutch oven, saute the diced onion in a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium to medium high heat until it starts to soften, about five to 10 minutes. Add turmeric and stir. Add dates and a pinch of cinnamon. Cook for a few seconds until it becomes fragrant.
- Add cooked lentils, black pepper and a little salt. Toss gently to combine and cook for a minute more to let the flavors marry. Turn off heat.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Rinse the soaked rice three times, draining the starchy water until the water runs clear. Add the clean rice to the boiling water and cook over high heat at a rapid boil for 7 minutes or until grains are half-cooked. (If you aren’t making tahdig, cook for a minute or two more or until tender.)
- Remove from heat and strain the rice in a fine colander. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Add the rice to the lentil mixture and gently fold to combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.
- To make tahdig, add a few tablespoons of oil to cover the bottom of a nonstick pot. Take two cups of the rice mixture and press them into the bottom of the oiled pot. Make a pyramid with the remaining rice. Poke a few holes in your pyramid to allow steam to escape. A chopstick works great for this, but the handle of silverware will also work fine.
- Wrap your pot lid with a towel to prevent steam from escaping. Cover the pot and place over medium high heat for about 10 minutes. If you smell burning, remove from heat immediately.
- Turn the heat down to low and leave undisturbed for 30-45 minutes. This might seem excessive, but during this slow cooking the rice separates into fluffy, individual grains.
- When ready to serve, remove the lid from your pot, place your serving dish or plate over top of it and carefully and quickly flip the whole thing over. If you hear a satisfying thud as the entire rice creation lands on your plate, there’s a good chance your tahdig turned out perfectly crispy. If not, don’t worry, the fluffy date and lentil rice underneath will be just as good without it.
Worth the drive:You’ll only find real deal shawarma at this family-run Iraqi restaurant
Lamb and date stew recipe
A sweet and savory stew, this recipe originated in Oman, written by someone for a palm oil company to promote its use. For this version, adapted from my cookbook, “The Food of Oman,” I’ve traded the palm oil for olive oil and simplified things a bit. For the meat, feel free to use lamb, beef or even goat, depending on your preference and what you can easily find. The slow simmer gives ample time to soften any meat you chose to use.
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 pound boneless lamb, beef or goat
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
- 2 medium red onions, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups beef broth
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 24 medium dates, about 1 cup roughly chopped
- 4-6 cups cooked basmati rice, for serving
- Toasted slivered almonds, for serving
- Mix red pepper, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Add meat and toss to coat.
- Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add lamb and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes more. Add broth, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen browned bits.
- Turn heat to high and once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for an hour and a half or until the meat is meltingly tender.
- In a small bowl, make a slurry with cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water. Add to the pot along with dates and stir. Continue to cook uncovered until the stew begins to thicken, about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Serve over basmati rice topped with toasted almonds.
Go out for iftar:A guide to celebrating Ramadan at halal restaurants in metro Phoenix
Persian date eggs recipe
This hearty Persian breakfast has become my favorite dish for suhoor, the last meal before the fast begins, because it cooks quickly, is loaded with protein and fiber and offers a delicious contrast of salty eggs and sweet dates.
- 4 eggs
- Splash of cream or milk
- 1 tablespoon Puck cheese or cream cheese, if available
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- 2-4 pitted Medjool or other soft date, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Whisk together all ingredients except butter.
- Melt butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Add egg mixture and cook slowly, stirring with a spatula to avoid browning, until eggs are soft cooked, about 2-5 minutes.
- Serve immediately.
Grilled date and halloumi skewers recipe
This one is questionable. Is it really saving? Well, halloumi certainly is a salty cheese, but the way a grilled date becomes fudge-like in its richness makes it hard to justify including this recipe. In the end, I decided it’s just too easy and too good not to. It also makes for a great suhoor meal or a lovely appetizer. And yes, I’ll admit, it’s a stellar dessert, too.
- Halloumi cheese
- Dates, pits removed
- Honey, optional
- Pistachios, optional
- Tahini, optional
- Slice halloumi into date-sized pieces.
- Skewer alternating pieces of date and cheese on a soaked wooden skewer or metal skewer.
- Grill over high heat on a gas or charcoal grill or on an indoor grill pan or electric grill. Cook just until grill marks form on the cheese and the dates soften, three to five minutes.
- Serve warm. Feel free to drizzled with honey and crushed pistachios or with nutty tahini.