When you think of Arab food, what geographies come to your mind? Lebanon? Palestine? Iran? Turkey? But, what about Spain?
There is a long history of Arab (and Muslim) influence in Spain, primarily during a period of about 800 years (8th-16th centuries C.E.) and primarily in the southern regions of Spain (known during the Islamic reign as Al-Andalus, and now known as the area of Andalucia) but not exclusively. As scholars have been demonstrating, including in food studies, “the Muslim influence in the Iberian peninsula was extremely far reaching.”
The Arab empires arrived in Spain via North Africa (look at a map, it’s literally a short boat ride across the Mediterranean!) and brought new ingredients and cooking methods with them when they conquered the Iberian peninsula, including ones that would become cornerstones of Spanish cuisine: ingredients like rice and saffron (think of the Spanish paella), citrus fruits, chickpeas, and spices such as coriander.
But what they also brought with them was new ways of cooking, new ways of eating, and new flavor combinations. It was the Arabs who brought to Spain (and the Western world) the combination of sweet and savory ingredients in the same dish.
It was the Arab empires that, more broadly, introduced the cultivation of sugarcane and the refinement of it into sugar to the European world, bringing to Europe a new taste for sweetness. It’s not that sweet foods didn’t exist prior to this, but the primary sweetening method up until this point had been honey and the introduction of cultivated sugarcane changed everything. The Spanish word for sugar (azucar) itself comes directly from the Arabic word for sugar (al sukkar).
But, more than the production of sugar from sugar cane, the Arab empires also brought sweetness through the cultivation and drying of fruits – such as dates, apricots, and figs – to Spain. These also became part of Spanish cuisine.
These are the influences that I am thinking of as I put together this recipe with classic, savory Spanish ingredients such as chorizo, smoked paprika (pimenton), and Mahón cheese in contrast to the sweetness of the dates – this combination is a result of the Arab influence in Spanish cuisine. Food has a history, a place, and a story and this is part of the story behind these ingredients and this dish.
Recipe Notes: The chorizo used in this recipe is not the fresh chorizo more common in Mexico and Latin America but the cured, dry sausages laden with paprika of varying spice level. Look for one that has some heat to it; it will compliment and be tempered by the rest of the ingredients. Mahón is a firm, sharp cheese from the Spanish island of Menorca; made from cow’s milk, it’s rind is also often rubbed in paprika to make it orange (you can spot a theme in these ingredients!) If you can’t find Mahón at your local cheesemonger, a more commonly available Spanish cheese would be Manchego. Lastly, I used medjool dates for this recipe (I get beautiful ones from Palestine) and their sticky sweetness works well in this recipe, though feel free to play around with other dates as well.
Spicy Chorizo and Mahón Stuffed Dates with Smoked Paprika Aioli
This is a simple appetizer that takes almost no time to put together but which tastes incredible; it will wow people without too much work! There's a lot going on with the flavors and they all work together to create something beautiful: the meaty spiciness of the chorizo, the creamy smokiness of the paprika aioli, the firm sharpness of the cheese, and the gooey sweetness of the dates. Each bite has all the textures and flavors working in tandem to make an incredibly delicious treat!
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 50 grams spicy Spanish chorizo, finely diced
- 50 grams Mahón cheese, cut into matchsticks the length of a date
- 24 medjool dates
To make the aioli:
(This will make a larger batch than you need but it ensures you get a good emulsion - which is the tricky part here!. Leftover aioli will last in the fridge for about a week and is terrific on sandwiches or eggs - or more dates!)
Combine the garlic, egg and Dijon in the bowl of a food processor (with a blade attachment) and process until evenly mixed. Now, with the processor running, slowly add the oil in a thin stream. This is the key to the whole process, adding oil slowly enough that it emulsifies and doesn't break. It should thicken as the oil is added, and should take around 2 minutes.
Stop the processor, add the lemon juice, smoked paprika and salt, and pulse until completely mixed in. If need be, use a spatula to scrape down the sides and then pulse again to ensure everything is mixed in.
Remove from the food processor into a jar or container and let chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before using. This aioli can be made ahead of time and keeps for about a week in the fridge.
Preheat your oven to 400F, placing the oven shelf near the top.
Finely dice the chorizo into small cubes. Cut the Mahón into 'matchstick' size pieces approximately as long as the dates.
Make an incision, lengthwise, in each date and gently squeeze to open it up and remove the pit.
Insert a piece of Mahón in the center of each date. Then, stuff the remaining space of the cavity with the chorizo, pinching the sides of the date to ensure it all stays together. The date won't close and the chorizo will be sticking out - this is good, it will crisp a little in the oven! As long as you can keep it all together enough to pick it up, then it's good to go.
Repeat for the remaining dates, cheese, and chorizo. Place the dates on a baking sheet and warm in the oven for about 2-3 minutes. Then, turn your oven to broil. Pay attention, this stage will go fast! Remove after a minute or two, once the chorizo on top is starting to crisp.
Place the dates on a serving plate or platter, top with a dollop of smoked paprika aioli, and it's ready to go!