Sautéed dates with cinnamon-roasted butternut squash, wheat berries and blue cheese

While it feels against the odds, mid-winter is often the time of the year when I feel most inspired in the kitchen. With the chilly air swirling outside, my kitchen is warm and cozy, the perfect place to hibernate for hours and enjoy the quiet lull of my oven.

This Winter has been a busy one in my kitchen. I’ve been cooking lots of Asian food, and getting to know many of the foods I grew up eating. This Asian food odyssey is all part of a special project I’m working on, which I hope to tell everyone more about soon. The project is an intensely personal one, a labour of love, as most of my endeavours tend to be. More on that soon….

Daily, I’m looking for big flavours at the moment. I am looking for huge contrasts in flavours that will shock my taste buds and make my heart race. The other day, I bought the hottest, fieriest kimchi I’ve ever eaten from Wholefoods which I savored like no other – super spicy gives our bodies such a welcome kick start during the Winter. The other ingredient I’m loving more and more right now is medjool dates. I’m usually not big on using dates as a sugar replacement but after meeting and chatting to the wondrous and beautiful Susan Jane White this week, and checking out her new book The Virtuous Tart, I think I’ve converted to the possibilities of dates in both sweet and savory dishes. Susan’s vegan caramels which she brought to our talk at Rizzoli Bookstore made my taste buds stand up and cheer. Predictably, I ran straight to the store and stocked up on dates!

Armed with my medjools, I have created a lovely, simple seasonal salad featuring big, bold flavours. Dates are on the extreme end of the sweet flavor spectrum, so I decided to embrace this and contrast them with one of the saltiest flavours I know, blue cheese. The butternut squash, roasted in cinnamon is a surprising aromatic addition. I have used wheat berries in this recipe, but beware – as a wholegrain, they take a long time to cook. If you are less committed to this lengthy cook time, opt for split freekeh, farro or pearl barley.

 

Sautéed dates with cinnamon-roasted butternut squash, wheat berries and blue cheese

Use your favorite blue cheese. Stilton or gorgonzola are perfect, and goats cheese would work well too.

Serves 2-3

  • ¾ cup wheat berries or farro, rinsed
  • 1 clove garlic, skin removed
  • 3 cups (500g/1lb) chopped butternut squash
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3-4 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 medjool dates, seeds removed and quartered
  • 2 cups baby arugula
  • handful of flat-leaf parsley
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 100g blue cheese
  • handful of walnuts
  • sea salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 375˚F / 190˚C.

Place a medium pot of salted water on medium-high heat and add the wheat berries and garlic clove. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce to low and simmer for 45-60 minutes until the grains are soft. Wheat berries take closer to an hour, while farro cooks a bit quicker. Drain and mash up the garlic with the grains.

Place the butternut squash on a baking tray and scatter over the cinnamon, season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper, and drizzle over 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Toss everything to combine. Roast in hot oven for 30-35 minutes, until squash is golden and tender.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the dates and turn them for just 1-2 minutes, until they are caramelized and sticky. The skin will be slightly crispy. Remove from heat and sprinkle with a big pinch of sea salt.

Combine the grains with the butternut squash, arugula and parsley. Drizzle over some olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and season well with sea salt and black pepper. To serve, scatter over the dates, blue cheese and walnuts.