Friday, 1 August 2014

Ingredient of the month : Dates

There are so many different types of date, prepared in different ways, to choose from...
Dates in long boxes with a little plastic fork shaped like a twig were a traditional part of the Christmas buffet for many of us, and we also came across them in the supermarket in dry, stoneless blocks ready for use in baking. But dates are so, so much more than this- fresh or dried, they make the perfect sweet snack and are packed with nutrients too. In our house, we eat them like candy! If the long boxes or dried up blocks are the only form of dates you've tried, then take a look at how versatile and healthy they are, and at all the different sorts you can get:

Dates are the fruit of the date palm, which may well have originated in the area now known as Iraq, and evidence of its presence there has been found as early as 6000 BC, and in the Indus Valley around  7000 BC, but it has been cultivated for so long and has spread so rapidly to every continent (except Antarctica) that it's impossible to be sure. Why did the date palm spread so fast? Because it's a truly amazing tree: not only does it bear exceptionally sweet and healthy fruits but the seeds can be used for oil and animal feed, the sap for alcoholic drinks and palm syrup, the leaves and stripped fruit clusters for brooms, thatch and woven products; even fuel. The wood is used in building and even the young leaves and the flowers are edible. I wouldn't be surprised if whole civilizations hadn't sprung up around the date palm!

Types of Date: There are over 400 types of date grown on Saudi Arabia alone, never mind the rest of the world, so this is a list of the most popular. You have probably heard of Deglet Nour and Medjool dates before, but look out for: Khadrawi (or Hadrawi), Mactoumi, Monief, Silaj, Sukkari (the sweetest in Saudi), Khidri, Khalas, Barhi (yellow and crunchy), Sekki (yellow at one end, brown at the other) and Ajwa (a sweet, blackish date that only grows in Medina, believed to have been eaten by the Prophet Mohammed). Dates vary in price from the cheaper Tunisian Deglet Nour (the sort that is often glucose-coated and comes in those long boxes), through to the dates like Sekki and Sukkari from the Middle East which can cost around £10 a kilo, to Ajwa dates from Medina, which I am told are priceless.
As well as the different varieties of dates, you can also buy dates fresh in supermarkets; these are often the large, plump and sticky Medjool dates. Fresh dates are not so chewy and the moisture content tones down their sweetness, making them perfect in fruit salads and desserts. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the very dried dates, which are as sweet as toffees, have an almost caramel-like flavour and are very chewy. In between these two extremes lie the "fresh" dates you can get at Middle Eastern and Asian food stores, especially in and around the time of Ramadan. (These are the sort of dates in the picture above.) They are a little chewier and slightly less moist than the supermarket fresh dates. They come cling-wrapped in kilo or half-kilo trays, clear plastic boxes or lidded cardboard boxes, and you can pay anything from £5-ish to upwards of £10 a kilo for them. Make sure you examine them carefully before buying, as they can sour in warm conditions or if they have been lying around in the shop for too long. To avoid this, buy from popular shops with a fast turnover.
When you get your dates home, whatever kind they are, always look out for tiny brown or yellowish dots inside, around the stone, as these are the eggs of worms which live inside the fruit. As they got there first, best leave them to it and don't eat those dates! Some batches of dates seem to have quite a few like this, others none; take it as an indication that fewer pesticides have been used when you find the eggs, and with any luck there will also be some egg-free dates in there that you can eat.

Nutrition and Health Benefits: Dates are full of natural sugars (ripe dates are 80% sugar, in fact), which make them superb for supplying energy before running or doing other exercise or when "opening" and "closing" the Ramadan fast. Before fasting, they provide energy and nutrients, and after fasting they restore the nervous system and their fibre content and sweetness helps prevent overeating. They are also great travelling and packed lunch companions, provided you have something to get the stickiness off your hands afterwards. Traditionally, dates are eaten by women in the last month of pregnancy, and a study has now shown that women who ate six dates a day during their pregnancies had a much easier labour!
Dates have a high mineral content, and are a good source of potassium. They also contain boron, copper, cobalt, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, selenium and zinc. Dates are also about 2.5% protein too. They are 8% fibre, which is good news for digestive health. B vitamins especially B5 and 6 also feature in the nutritional content of dates, plus they are a source of calcium and iron.
Naturally, with this range of nutrients, dates are going to have health benefits:  Dates are said to prevent abdominal cancers, regulate the digestion and can also aid the nervous system because of their potassium and Vitamin B content. In the Middle East, dates have traditionally been used to treat sore throats, colds and fevers, to increase lactation (milk flow) in nursing mothers and for fertility.

Culinary Uses: Apart from just eating them straight, dates can be stuffed with nuts or marzipan, or coated in chocolate. Traditionally, they were used in desserts, drinks and bread. Date paste is often used in desserts and smoothies today, and of course dates have also found their way into European cookery as a baking ingredient. Date syrup makes a great sugar substitute and mixed with tahini (sesame seed butter) is delicious as a sweet spread. Date recipes from this blog: 
raw vegan millionaire's shortbread  
our version of the Nak'd Bar
chocolate date and walnut squares
  stuffed baked apples
  date porridge  
date and walnut cake
  ginger and date squares ...to name but a few!


Amazing date fact: A Judean date palm was grown from a seed that was 2000 years old!)






Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Gauranga Potatoes: a classic reworked- vegan, soya free


This is the Yogiveg take on that classic Hare Krishna potato dish you may have seen in the Krishna recipe books or tried at a temple. It's usually made with a combo of some or all of these: full fat yoghurt, full fat milk, sour cream or cream, unpressed paneer (fresh cheese) and butter. The original recipe is an extremely fat-laden dish, and high in cholesterol. But as we love golden Gauranga potatoes, crispy on top and creamy underneath, so we set about converting it into something altogether more healthy, but just as delicious!

1 kg potatoes, sliced thinly (but not peeled)
750ml hemp milk (more if you want the finished dish wetter)
1 1/2 tsps seasalt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 heaped tsps coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp powdered ginger
ground almonds for sprinkling
  • Make hemp milk if necessary.
  • Cook the sliced potatoes gently in the hemp milk until soft.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients except the almonds.
  • Spread evenly into an ovenproof dish, scatter the ground almonds on top and bake at 200C until slightly golden-brown on top.




Sunday, 27 July 2014

Recipes Revisited: Rhubarb and Custard Ice Cream with Ginger- vegan, sugar free, gluten free

Serve with fresh fruit for a perfect summer dessert!

 The heatwave shows no sign of abating just yet, so in between watering the garden and harvesting your summer veggies, chill out in the sun with a bowl of fruity, refreshing vegan icecream- guilt-free, of course! Ice cream is fast becoming my favourite thing to make- so many flavours to experiment with...
This recipe is a refinement of the rhubarb and custard ice cream we posted last year, the main difference being that this time we used agave not sugar. We also ditched the crystallised ginger in favour of powdered ginger (but next time I won't be quite as puritanical about the sugar content and I'll add it back in!) and doubled up the quantities to make it yield the best part of 500g; you can never have too much ice cream, can you?

800ml (2 cans) coconut milk
2 tabs custard powder
4 tabs agave
Rhubarb compote:
2 cups chopped rhubarb
4 tabs agave
1 tsp ginger powder (more if you want the ginger to come through strongly)


  • Simmer the rhubarb and agave gently together until soft and pulpy.
  • Make the custard following the instructions on the tub. (Take a little coconut milk from the pan, whisk up with the custard powder and agave, then add the boiling coconut milk and whisk until thickened somewhat.) Leave to cool.
  • Using a hand blender, beat plenty of air into the custard and put in the freezer (still in its mixing bowl).
  • Take out and beat again from time to time; this breaks up the ice crystals and keeps it from getting too hard.
  • Finally, swirl in the rhubarb compote, pile into a lidded tub and freeze until solid but scoop-able.