The United States doesn’t have quite the level of access to dates that they do in places like Morocco or Israel, but we do have date syrup, which has long been a staple in the Middle East.
The fall is my favorite time of year to cook. After a summer of staying out of the kitchen (I guess I can’t stand the heat) and eating raw salads and minimally prepared dishes, I’m always itching to get back in front of the stove by the time the leaves start to change.
It’s also a great time in the market, with the late summer produce mingling with the promise of the fall harvest. And while it’s nice to see the return of apples and pumpkins, all those meals in the sukkah have my mind wandering to the other side of the world, to Israel, where a more exotic selection of produce is coming into its own — things like almonds and olives and pomegranates. And dates.
I was lucky enough once to visit an open-air date market in Meknes accompanied by a date expert. The selection and quality were staggering. There are literally dozens of cultivated varieties of dates, and they run the gamut from crisp and juicy fresh dates, to lusciously sweet and almost creamy cured dates. The dates we typically see in our markets are allowed to hang on the tree for a period of time, giving them their characteristically shriveled appearance.
We don’t have quite the level of access to dates that they do in places like Morocco, but we do have date syrup, which has long been a staple in the Middle East.
It is actually date syrup (not bee honey) that the Torah refers to in describing Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. I first tasted it on a kibbutz date farm and was blown away by its balance, depth and brightness.
I’ve started to see date syrup in more and more places these days (it’s sometimes called date molasses). Just make sure to get the pure stuff. Some of it is cut with sugar, which drowns out all the complexity.
Date syrup has many delicious applications. It is amazing spread on toast with raw tehina for a Middle Eastern peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s also a no-brainer over ice cream and a heavy spoonful stirred into a glass of milk might make your kids forget about chocolate milk. Add a shot of dark rum or bourbon and it might make you forget about your kids.
But date syrup can be brilliant in savory applications as well, and I wanted to use it in a dish that brings together the riches of the Mediterranean harvest in a way that makes sense for the fall. In short, something that really makes me want to get back in the kitchen.
Braised Chicken With Dates and Olives
8 chicken thighs (or 4 chicken quarters)
2 medium Spanish onions
4 garlic cloves
1⁄2 cup date molasses
juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 medium carrots
1⁄2 cup of your favorite olives
1 bay leaf
2 cups chicken stock (or water)
Make the marinade. In the work bowl of a food processor, place one onion, two garlic cloves, the date molasses, lemon juice and salt and process until smooth. Place the chicken thighs in a large Ziploc bag and add the marinade.
Refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400˚. Remove the chicken thighs from the bag and reserve the marinade. Brush away any remaining marinade from the chicken and place skin-side up in a roasting pan. Roast the chicken in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the skin is a deep golden brown. Remove the chicken and reduce the oven temperature to 300˚.
Warm the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Dice the remaining onion and add it to the pot along with the remaining two garlic cloves. Cut the carrots into half-inch rounds and add them to pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the onions are translucent and tender, approximately 10 minutes.
Add the chicken and deglaze the pan with the reserved marinade. Add the olives, bay leaf and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover the dutch oven and place in the oven and braise for approximately one hour or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Serve with jeweled bulgur wheat salad.
Jeweled Bulgur Wheat Salad
1 cup bulgur wheat
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup water
seeds from one pomegranate
1⁄4 cup pitted dates, chopped
1⁄4 cup chopped almonds
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro (or mint)
Place the bulgur in a large bowl and mix in the olive oil with a fork so that the bulgur is well coated. Add the salt and water and let stand for 30 minutes.
Fluff the bulgur with a fork and fold in the remaining ingredients. Season to taste with additional kosher salt, if necessary.
Steven Cook is co-owner of Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue and Federal Donuts.