Growing up, dates were a Christmas thing. They’d sit in the same basket lined with a red linen cloth every year, alongside whole hazelnuts and peanuts, a nutcracker and dried fig. None of which would make an appearance at any other time of the year. And which would sit like that, virtually untouched, through Christmas and into the New Year. To me, it was as much part of the Christmas decorations as something to enjoy eating.
No more. This year, I resolved to find a use for them.
Dates are among the most prized dried fruits at the dried fruit & nuts shops you find all across Istanbul. And most of all at Mısır Çarşısı, Istanbul’s famous spice market and one of my favourite places in the city.
Dates are the dried fruits of palm trees growing primarily in the desert areas of the Middle East and North Africa, though they can (and do) also grow elsewhere. The trees are in fact gendered, and only female trees yield fruits. The fruit itself grows out from the top of the tree, which can reach 30 metres tall. Not easy to get to, but the yield is generous: According to Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food a good palm tree may yield as much as 150 kg dates annually.
Dates are incredibly sweet – some varieties go up to 70% sugar. Some people substitute them for sugar in dessert recipes. I had my eyes on something else: The sweet element of a cheese platter.
For this recipe, which isn’t mine but a variation on a dish in the brilliant book Zahav by Michael Souloumov, I combine dates with walnuts and a splash of sherry vinegar to make a mixture that’s perfect with cheese. The flavour is intense and sweet – but at the same time much deeper than most jams or jellies. And, as luck would have it, much easier to make than either.
To match the intense sweet-nuttiness of the dates and walnuts I can think of nothing better than halloumi, the salty Cypriot cheese which keeps its shape when fried. And to top it off – a little freshness from fresh apples.
The dish works a treat as an appetiser or snack, or even as part of a meze spread. But make sure to serve and eat quickly – while hot halloumi is one of my favourite treats I can think of many better things to eat than squeaky cold halloumi. Serves 4 as a small appetiser.
Halloumi with dates, walnuts & apple
- 8 dates
- 30 g walnuts, chopped
- 1,5 tsp sherry vinegar
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 150 g halloumi, cubed
- 1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced into thin matchsticks (I use a julienne peeler)
- boiling water, to soften the dates
- olive oil, to fry the halloumi
If the dates are hard, steep in boiling water for a few minutes until softened. This is not necessary if your walnuts are soft and easy to work with. Destone and roughly chop into cubes slightly smaller than 1 cm.
- Mix the dates, chopped walnuts, sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Season.
- Fry the halloumi in a little olive oil over a medium heat. Shake the pan and turn the cheese regularly to ensure it is fried on all sides (or, at least, as many sides as possible) and doesn’t burn.
- Put the date and walnut mixture on a plate. Top with the halloumi cubes and apple sticks. Serve immediately.