x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fruits of the Emirates

Ahead of the Emirates International Date Festival, which opens today, we look at some inventive ways of cooking with the fruit.

Chicken stuffed with dates and cream cheese.
Chicken stuffed with dates and cream cheese.

"An almost perfect food", proclaims London's Department of Health and Human services after assessing its nutritional content.

The trees on which it grows are thought to be among the oldest in the world and it's estimated there are 40 different varieties currently being produced in the UAE.

We refer, of course, to the date - the highly prized fruit which needs little introduction, thanks to its historical and religious significance in the Islamic world.

Dates and date palms are mentioned 20 times in the Holy Quran; the Prophet Mohammed would break his fast by eating them, before offering Maghrib prayer. It's also thought that the roof of the Prophet's mosque in Madina was made from interwoven date fronds and that the trunks of palm trees acted as the pillars.

Dates are renowned for having multiple uses: the seeds can be ground up and fed to animals or alternatively burnt for fuel. The high tannin content of the fruit means they have been used in many traditional medicines.

They make a welcome addition to the diet, being low in fat, high in protein and an excellent source of antioxidants, notably carotenoids which help build the immune system, protect against cell damage and aid vitamin A production in the body. Dates contain potassium, magnesium, selenium and calcium, among other minerals and their high fibre content is an additional boon.

Fibre lowers cholesterol levels, promotes healthy digestion and is thought to be instrumental in guarding against heart disease and colorectal cancer.

A word of warning, though: while their natural sugar content means they provide the body with a burst of instant energy - ideal when breaking fast during Ramadan or when undertaking a vigorous sporting activity - the downside is they are high in calories, so control should be exercised when it comes to portions.

For those interested in learning more about the fruit, the Emirates International Date Palm Festival is being held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) from today until Saturday.

The festival operates in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and has been organised by Turret Media.

"There are two primary goals behind the festival, one of them being to facilitate a business platform for the date industry, through which date manufacturers can further expand their presence in potential markets and also increase sales directly with the UAE consumer base," said the group exhibition director Fadi Saad.

He added that the festival was also intended as a means for celebrating "the heritage and culture of the date palm, to foster the enlightenment of indigenous food traditions to a global market and reinforce the factors behind the fruit's popularity".

While the event will no doubt benefit those working in the industry, date aficionados should also find themselves well catered for. One of this year's new features is the "date planting" area, where visitors are encouraged to buy and plant a date palm seed, which will then be relocated to a specially designated area in Abu Dhabi and dedicated to Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. The name of the person who purchased the tree will be displayed in front of each one.

Keen cooks can learn how to expand their date recipe repertoire at the designated cooking area, where a number of chefs including the cookery book author and television chef Suzanne Husseini will be doing live demonstrations throughout the festival.

"I am delighted to be a part of this," the Emirati chef Khulood Atiq Saeed said. "We will be able to showcase how Emirati cuisine reflects the country's tradition, heritage and history."

Also participating is the chef Tomas Reger, responsible for Dubai's Steam Sum Dim Sum restaurant, as well as reinventing the menu for Le Sushi Bar. "I am fascinated by the different flavours and textures of the date fruit," he said. "I will showcase the ways the fruit can bring richness and complexity to both sweet and savoury dishes."

More competitive - not to mention agile - visitors can try their hands (and feet) at date palm climbing, as the festival organisers attempt to find the fastest tree climber in the UAE. If your children are too young to be scrambling up palm trees, a visit to the Al Ain Dairy Kids Zone might be more suitable. Activities on offer include face painting and games, a dairy-focused education zone and a camel corner.

Meanwhile, at the date palm theatre, a whole range of performers will be taking to the stage, including local students putting on dances, plays and competitions. Exhibitors will also be making presentations about their wares. Afternoon lectures will focus on the fruit's health benefits.

Want to take on the date in your own kitchen? Here are two new recipes well worth experimenting with.

Spiced date swirls

makes 10

 

150g dates, chopped

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 tsp mixed spice

125ml water

40g pecan nuts, chopped

2 sheets ready-rolled puff pastry (425g pack), thawed if frozen

plain flour, for dusting

1 egg, beaten

 

To garnish:

icing sugar

 

Preheat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/Gas 6, Line a baking tray with grease-proof paper.

Tip the dates, brown sugar, mixed spice and water into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Stir continuously until the sugar dissolves (one to two minutes), then bring the mixture to the boil briefly. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes, or until the mixture is thick and the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chopped pecans. Leave to cool.

Spread the puff pastry sheets out on a lightly floured surface. Cut each sheet width ways into five strips, approximately 2.5cm thick.

Spoon a little of the cooled date mixture along the length of each pastry strip, then roll up to form a coil. Place on the prepared baking sheet and lightly brush the surface of the pastry with the beaten egg.

Transfer to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.

Chicken stuffed with dates

Serves 2

 

3 tbsp olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

1 white onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 tsp cumin seeds

75g dates, chopped

2 skinless chicken breasts

60g cream cheese

small bunch parsley, leaves picked and chopped

25g flaked almonds

salt and black pepper

 

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-low heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook for eight to 10 minutes, until softened and light golden brown.

Increase the heat slightly and add the cumin seeds, followed a minute later by the dates. Stir well, season with salt and black pepper and cook for a further three to four minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, tip the mixture into a bowl and leave to cool.

Using a sharp knife, slice into the side of each chicken breast, to form a pocket.

Beat the cream cheese, parsley and flaked almonds into the cooled date mixture, taste to check the seasoning and spoon into each pocket.

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the chicken breasts and cook for three minutes on each side, then reduce the heat and continue to cook for a further seven to eight minutes, or until the chicken is completely cooked through.

Remove from the pan and serve with your chosen accompaniments – wild rice works well.