Saturday, October 14, 2017


World's largest palm oasis, in the valley of the River Ziz.
Morocco continually surprises. We drove through miles and miles of desolate, arid, rocky landscape, then, suddenly, pulled over to overlook a lush, green palm oasis. A river of green trees, where small, walled settlements—casbahs—follow the valley, flows in the bottomland of the River Ziz.

Dates, almost ready for harvest.

The palm oasis—possibly the world’s largest—is also the source of Morocco’s date harvest. Right now (mid-October) is harvest season. I was there a few weeks earlier, when huge bunches of dates were still ripening at the tops of the palms.

Date palms laden with ripening fruit, near Erfoud, Morocco.

We dropped down to the valley floor, zig-zagging through palm trees and gardens to arrive at Maison Zouala, an old Berber home that has been turned into a guest house. Our host, Mhamed (Hami) Oukhouya, served us a marvellous cous cous and an orange and date salad.

Hami, of Maison Zouala, tells us about dates and the philosophy of inshallah.

Tafilatet dates are incredibly sweet.

The dates of the Tafilalet region, Hami said, are the Medjool variety, although they differ from California Medjools. Over centuries, the Moroccan date palms have adapted to local climate and soil conditions. They are incredibly soft and sweet.

Interestingly, Arab and Berber settlers carried palm trees to Spain in the 10th  Century AD. They were planted in the area of Elche (Alicante, eastern Mediterranean Spain). Using the same methods as in North Africa, palms were placed along boundaries of irrigated plots to maximize water retention. Elche has Europe’s largest date palm plantation, although because its climate is marginal, fruit doesn’t properly ripen.

And, then, Spanish colonizers established the date palm on California missions in the 17th century. The Morocco connection.

Date palms reflected in the waters of a natural spring. Dates need their "feet in the water, their head in the fire," meaning groundwater for the roots and hot desert, low humidity, for the foliage and fruit ripening.

A roadside stand selling unripe yellow dates.

At the foot of date palms.

Cous Cous with Seven Vegetables and Dates
Cus Cus con Verduras y Dátiles

Sweet dates stud fluffy grains of cous cous with chicken and seven vegetables.

This cous cous recipe is based on one found on a web page about Moroccan food products, (Page 22 According to that site, it takes six women (of a cooperative) eight hours to prepare 50 kilos of cous cous.

My initiation into preparing cous cous came from Paula Wolfert’s original Moroccan cookbook—Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, (Harper and Row, 1987.)

Paula details how to dampen the grain, then steam it twice over the pot of simmering stew. Her very important note: “If the stew in the bottom of the cous cous pot is fully cooked and well seasoned prior to the final steaming of cous cous grains, you should transfer the stew to a separate saucepan, keeping it warm, and perform the final steaming over boiling water.” While it’s ok to cook the chicken until falling off the bones, try not to cook the vegetables until they disintegrate.

Seven is a “lucky” number, but not fixed. Vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage, sweet potatoes, fava beans and artichokes can be added to the stew. Beef or lamb, cut in chunks, can be used instead of chicken.

Most cous cous recipes call for salted butter as well as oil to prepare the cous cous. I've used only olive oil. 

Steamer has perforated bottom.

I'm using a cous cous steamer I bought in Morocco 50 years ago! It has a perforated bottom. It should fit tightly over the big stew pot (this one is not the original). If you don't have a cous cous steamer, use a heat-proof colander. Tie a dampened cloth around the join between steamer and pot so no steam escapes around the sides.

Serves 6 to 8. You may need to serve the cous cous, chicken and vegetables on two platters.


For the chicken and vegetable stew:

Seven vegetables, give or take a few.
6 chicken pieces (legs and thighs)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions
5 plum tomatoes, halved
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon hot water
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
Bouquet of parsley and cilantro
10 cups water
4-6 carrots
2 turnips, quartered
1 pound cous cous (procedure follows)
12 dates
2 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
½ butternut squash, peeled and cut in pieces
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed and cut in wide strips
12 almonds, blanched and peeled

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

Chicken, vegetables, spices and herbs go in the pot raw.

Place 3 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a large stew pot. Cut 1 onion into wedges and place in the bottom of the pot. Place the chicken pieces on top. Cut the second onion into quarters and tuck them in with the chicken pieces. Add the halved tomatoes.

Crush the saffron in a mortar. Place it in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of hot water. Let it infuse 10 minutes.

Add 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper and the ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and herbal bouquet to the pot with the chicken. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons more of oil. Place the pot on a medium heat and cook, covered, 10 minutes. Add the 10 cups of water and the saffron water. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 45 minutes.

Peel carrots and, if they are large, cut them in half lengthwise. Add carrots and turnips to the pot with the chicken. 

Prepare cous cous for cooking according to following procedure. Steam cous cous over the chicken-vegetable stew for 15 minutes.

Add zucchini, butternut squash and red bell pepper to the stew. Place cous cous over the stew to steam with the dates for 20 minutes.

To serve: mound cous cous on a large platter. Use a slotted spoon to remove chicken pieces from the big pot. (If chicken is falling off the bone, discard bones.) Place chicken around the cous cous. Discard herbal bouquet, cinnamon sticks and any loose tomato skins. Place vegetables on top of cous cous. Garnish with the dates and almonds.

Ladle some of the cooking liquid into a bowl and serve it alongside the platter of cous cous, chicken and vegetables.

Use wooden fork to break up lumps in dampened cous cous.
To prepare the cous cous:
1 pound cous cous (about 2 ¾ cups)
12 dates
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Place cous cous in a shallow pan and add 2 cups of water. Sluice the water through the grain, then pour into a fine sieve to drain off excess water. Return the cous cous grain to the pan and let it dry 20 minutes. Rake it through with a wooden fork or fingers to break up lumps.

Ladle the cous cous into a cous cous steamer or heat-proof colander that fits over the big stew pot. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, place the steamer on top, uncovered, then reduce the heat so the stew just bubbles and steam gradually rises through the cous cous. Steam the cous cous 15 minutes.

Turn the cous cous out into the shallow pan. Spread it to dry for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with ¼ cup cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the dates to the cous cous. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of oil. Use the hands to spread the oil through the cous cous, breaking up clumps of the grains.

Return the cous cous to the steamer and place it over the stew. Steam for 20 minutes.

To serve: mound the cous cous on a large platter. Place the chicken and vegetables on top of it. Stud the cous cous with the steamed dates. 

Serve cous cous with chicken, vegetables and dates. Serve harissa chile sauce on the side.

Date Bars
Barras con Dátiles

A holiday treat, date bars.

For me, dates signify a special occasion because, when I was growing up, dates were a treat for holidays, when my mother made her famous Date Bars, chewy squares, chock full of nuts and sweet dates.

My mother’s recipe for Date Bars, from The Settlement Cook Book (by Mrs. Simon Kander; around 1942), called for melted butter and one cup of sugar. I have substituted olive oil for the butter and eliminated the sugar completely. Dates are so incredibly sweet that I don’t think you’ll miss the sugar. 

Makes 16 bars.

¾ cup flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
2 large eggs
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup chopped dates (about 7 ounces pitted dates)
1 cup chopped nuts
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and cardamom.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Beat in the oil, water and lemon zest. Stir in the dry ingredients to make a smooth batter. Fold in the dates and nuts.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil a rectangular baking pan (7X12 inches). Spread the batter in the pan. Bake until top is springy when pressed, about 20 minutes.

Cut into bars while still warm. Dust with confections’ sugar, if desired.

Chewy date bars are chock full of sweet dates and nuts.

Moroccan dessert: sliced oranges with orange blossom water, cinnamon, dates. Usually with almonds, but I've added seasonal pomegranate seeds instead.

The Moroccan date festival and trade fair, Salon International des Dattes au Maroc, takes place from 26 to 29 of October in the town of Erfoud.


  1. Your pictures are wonderful! This has taken me back down memory lane when I lived and worked in Abu Dhabi 1983-84. One could go to the souk (market) and buy multiple varieties of dates for the equivalent of .17 cents a pound! Also, having known your lovely Mother, I will add her wonderful sounding recipe for date bars to my holiday baking. The cous cous and vegetable dinner takes me back to a special dinner that I and my visiting daughter were invited to, with the Jordanian community in Abu Dhabi. Thank you so much for this delightful "trip"!

    1. Patty: So glad you enjoyed the blog and pictures. Having lived in date palm country, you probably especially like this fruit.

  2. Love couscous. First had it when I was studying in Paris years ago. Then I had it in Tangier last year. Your recipe looks good. I like it especially with lamb.

  3. Ariel: I like lamb cous cous too! Chicken is faster cooking. Dates are good with either one.