I still remember the anticipation of watching the sun sink closer and closer to the horizon. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. My childhood hometown of Dubai held its breath as the fiery ball dipped lower, lower and then finally into oblivion.
"Boom!" went the cannon, announcing that the day of fasting was over. Across the city, Muslims broke their fast as the Prophet Muhammad did, with a single date and a glass of water. The evening feast, known as "iftar" would only happen after prayers.
There is little resembling those days in my new hometown of Los Angeles except for the palm trees and boxes of impossibly sweet dates at the supermarket. Without thinking, I still reach for them, a shortcut to home.
Dates are revered in the Middle East. References to dates line the Qur’an, and the tree even sits on the Saudi seal. Nomadic Bedouins depended on its high sugar and fiber to sustain them during their travels. In fact, dates travelled with the Arab empire as far away as Spain, where they are wrapped in bacon and shallow-fried (an incarnation you're not likely to find on a Muslim table, given the prohibition of pork from their diet!).
Walk into most Arab homes and you'll be greeted by a plate of dates and a demitasse of strong, black Arabic coffee. You'll find all kinds of delicious desserts made with dates, but they're also used in savory preparations, such as pilafs, meat dishes and tagines.
Here's my addition to the compendium: date-pistachio balls that are dipped in dark chocolate. They are best eaten cold, right out of the refrigerator if you're anything like me!
CHOCOLATE-COVERED DATE-PISTACHIO TRUFFLES
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Makes 24 truffles
1 cup shelled unsalted raw pistachios
2 cups moist, pitted dates (about 24)
1/2 teaspoon tangerine or orange zest
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
12-ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
Himalayan pink salt (or fleur de sel or kosher salt), to garnish
In a food processor, pulse the pistachios until very finely minced, but not powdered. Add the dates, tangerine zest and cardamom, then process until a cohesive ball forms. Transfer to a large bowl.
Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment. Remove about 1 tablespoon of date mixture and roll between your palms until you form a smooth ball. Place on the baking sheet, then repeat with remaining mixture. Very slightly wet hands helps alleviate stickiness.
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a low, steady simmer. Place a medium stainless steel or other heat-safe bowl on top of the saucepan. Pour the chocolate into the bowl and allow to melt, stirring occasionally until smooth.
Using 2 small spoons, drop a date ball into the melted chocolate and turn gently to coat. Use a spoon to scoop up the ball, then pass it back and forth between the 2 spoons, letting any excess chocolate drip off. Gently return the coated date ball to the baking sheet, letting any extra chocolate on the spoon drip on top of it. Sprinkle with a little pink salt. Repeat with remaining balls.
Place baking sheet in the refrigerator and chill until the chocolate hardens, about 1 hour, though overnight is best.
Nutrition information per serving: 150 calories; 70 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 7 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 15 mg sodium; 25 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 19 g sugar; 3 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Food Network star Aarti Sequeira is the author of "Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul." She blogs at http://www.AartiPaarti.com .