I vividly remember those long, round-ended boxes of sticky dates that would appear at Christmas in my childhood, with those long, plastic forks which came inside the packet so your fingers never got sticky. My grandfather and I would eat vast quantities of them. But, as far as I remember, we never used them in cooking – they just sat there with the nuts and Quality Street.
Pierre, my car mechanic, always brings me back proper dates on the branch when he goes to see his family in north Africa. And it got me thinking – why not make better use of these wonderful fruits?
Slow-cooked ham knuckle with dates
Honey is normally used to glaze hams but actually a purée of dates does an even better job – it's a bit like molasses and sticks really well to the meat.
You can eat this hot, straight from the oven, with simple root vegetables or greens. But it also works cold, too.
Two unsmoked ham hocks weighing about a kilo each, soaked overnight in cold water
12-14 stoned dates, soaked in 400ml hot water for an hour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and halved
2 large carrots, peeled and halved
A few sprigs of thyme
Wash off the ham hocks, place in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Add the onion, peppercorns, carrots and thyme. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for about 2 hours or until the meat is starting to come off the bone.
Leave to cool, then remove the large bone that runs through the ham, leaving the small bone in. You don't have to do this but it looks nice.
Criss-cross though the rind with a knife. Keep the stock for a pea soup.
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Line a large roasting tray with doubled-over foil then place the hocks on top.
Blend the dates with the water they've been soaking in, until smooth. Spoon some of this mixture over the hocks and bake in the oven for about 1 hour, spooning over more date mixture every so often and basting it.
The hocks should have a caramel colour on the outside, but be careful it doesn't burn. If it colours too much, then cover loosely in foil.
Apple and date strudel
Apples and dates are a great marriage. A strudel is a pretty simple dessert to make for a dinner party and filo or strudel pastry is easy to get your hands on these days.
For the filling
1kg cooking apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
16-10 stoneless dates, quartered
150g caster sugar
A couple of good knobs of butter
For the strudel
4 leaves of filo/strudel pastry
120-150g butter, melted
1-2tbsp golden caster sugar
Crème fraîche or custard to serve
Stir every so often for about 10-12 minutes until the apples begin to soften, then remove from the heat and transfer to a tray to cool.
Lay a sheet of the filo pastry on the table and brush with butter, then repeat with the other 3 sheets on top.
Spoon the apple mixture down the edge closest to you, leaving a space at the ends to fold over; then roll it up fairly tightly and transfer to a baking tray.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Brush the top of the strudel with butter and scatter with the sugar and bake for about 30 minutes, until golden. Leave to cool a little before cutting and serving.
Serve with custard.
Date and walnut loaf
My grandmother used to make this loaf. I've tweaked it a touch over the years but it's still pretty much her recipe. The good thing about putting dates in a cake or loaf like this is that it helps the cake stay moist.
Serve it for afternoon tea, as a snack, or try it after dinner with some soft blue cheese.
110g stoned dates, roughly chopped
55g butter, softened
225ml boiling water
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
225g self-raising flour
55g chopped walnuts
170g brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
Gently mix with a wooden spoon to ensure all of the butter has melted and the dates plump up a little, then leave to cool.
Preheat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4.
In a mixing bowl, combine the self-raising flour, walnuts and sugar, then stir into the cooled date mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon, then stir in the beaten egg.
Prepare a loaf tin by brushing it with melted butter and lining it with greaseproof paper or baking parchment. If you have a non-stick loaf tin, then line just the base with paper. Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, depending on your oven.
Leave to cool on a wire rack. Slice and spread with butter – or eat without, it's up to you.
Makes about ½Ltr
These spicy Indian pickles make great instant snacks with bread, poppadoms or as an accompaniment to Indian starters – and, remember, their flavour improves over time.
100ml vegetable or corn oil
1tbsp mustard seeds
10-15 curry leaves
2 large onions, peeled, halved and finely chopped
50g root ginger, scraped and grated
5 green chillies, chopped
1tbsp red chilli powder
¼tbsp methi powder (fenugreek)
2tsp ground turmeric
Salt to taste
250-300g chopped seedless dates
100g jaggery or molasses sugar
Now add the chopped dates, tamarind, jaggery and water.
Bring to the boil and simmer on a medium heat for 8-10 minutes, until it's thickened.
Transfer to a sterilised preserving jar while still hot and seal the lid. Leave to cool, then store in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months.