It's Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast all day long — from sunup to sundown. The fast is broken each day with a celebratory meal called an iftar. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which means Ramadan falls at a different time each year. When Ramadan falls in August — as it does this year — it means long, hot days without food or water.
Yvonne Maffei, who writes the food blog My Halal Kitchen, talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about how to prepare and persevere when it's hot and you're hungry.
"We're spending around 16 hours a day fasting," Maffei explains, "so during the times when we are eating — which is after the sun goes down — we have to really hydrate ourselves." Maffei suggests foods that are filled with water — like squash and watermelon — to help rehydrate the body.
It helps to have tasty drinks, too. Maffei has developed a drink that is sure to help anyone beat the heat — even if you're not observing Ramadan. It's called the Honeydew Melon Cooler, and it's one of her favorites. All it takes is honeydew, guava, mango, orange juice and a blender. They're fruits you wouldn't necessarily think to mix together, Maffei says, "but it's really delicious and it's very tropical."
In addition to rehydrating, it's also key to eat filling, nutritious food. For iftar dinner, Maffei recommends Hanger Steak with Mango Salsa. "Beef is [an] excellent source of protein and iron that we need — and we lose a lot of that when fasting," she explains. The thinly cut hanger steak cooks quickly and pairs nicely with a salsa of tomatoes, chopped mango, white onions and lime juice. "It's really refreshing, and you can have that with a side of rice or couscous maybe," Maffei says. "It gives you some energy rather than a sugar crash later on."
The most traditional way to break the fast is with a date — that was the tradition of the prophet Muhammad, Maffei explains. The sweet fruits are a perfect fast-breaking food. "It has just the right amount of sugar in it to bring your body's glucose levels up," Maffei says. "Toward the end of your fast, you feel a little bit lightheaded ... and then as soon as you have those dates, you start to feel a little bit more alive again." (Check out Maffei's recipe for Dates with Cream.)
The predawn meal — suhoor — is key to a good fast. "It's not just cereal and milk," Maffei says. "That will never get us through the day." In her house, three alarms are set for 3:30 a.m. That gives the family about one hour to prepare and eat a filling meal before the sun starts to rise around 4:30. They eat eggs, vegetables, fruit, smoothies — and coffee, if there's time. "Ramadan is not meant to be a hardship on us, so we're encouraged to have these meals," Maffei says.
Despite the 16 hours each day when you can't eat, Ramadan isn't a holiday that's defined by not eating. It's also a time to enjoy the taste and the experience of food even more.
"I think that when you break your fast, you realize how much gratitude we need to have for the miracle of food," Maffei says."You start to really savor things. Some of my best meals are at the iftar time."
By Yvonne Maffei
It sure is hot. Humid, too. I've found the perfect way to cool off without ever having to get out of the house by making my own fruit coolers. You can really do this with any fruits, but this is what I had on hand. Cool off, enjoy the sunshine and relax. This recipe serves 2, so share it with someone special to you.
1/2 honeydew melon, roughly chopped
1 small yellow guava, seeds removed
1/2 mango, peeled and pith removed
1/4 cup orange juice
1. Place all prepared ingredients into a blender. Blend for 1 minute or until smooth.
By Yvonne Maffei
Serves 3 if you are serving one date per person; otherwise, double or triple this recipe
There are many varieties of dates: Medjool, Deglet Noor, Halawy, just to name a few. My personal favorite is the Medjool date because it is soft and thick and doesn't taste too sweet. I also love them because they can be stuffed with crunchy things like almonds, hazelnuts or any kind of nut you prefer, adding texture and flavor to an already-delicious gift of food.
If you're having guests over for iftar or would just like to make a pretty presentation of your dates, you might want to try Dates with Cream. I use a recipe for homemade creme fraiche to dollup on top, but you can use store-bought fresh creme fraiche or another type of all-natural cream, if that's what you have.
1. Wash and dry the dates. Make a clean cut to open the date and remove any pits.
2. Stuff each date with 3 whole almonds and close them.
3. On a plate or platter, arrange the dates in a row. Dollup the creme fraiche on top of each one. Finish with lemon or orange zest and chopped pistachios.
Serve at room temperature with small forks for those who prefer it.
By Yvonne Maffei
A great summer dish to leave you satisfied and refreshed all at once — this hanger steak can be grilled indoors or out. Prepare the mango salsa first so that the steak isn't waiting too long to be accompanied by its sweet and savory counterpart.
Mango Salsa Ingredients
1 clove garlic, minced
1 mango, diced
1 avocado, diced
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 white onion, minced
1/4 red onion, minced
8 to 10 cherry tomatoes
Salt, to taste
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
4 hanger steaks, or any type of steak you would cook on a grill, about 6 to 7 ounces each
Freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the grill or grill pan ahead of time.
2. Add pepper to the raw steak meat (there is salt in the mango salsa, so unless you like to add more, you really don't need to here).
3. No oil is generally needed on the grill or saute pan unless you've purchased an extra lean meat. If that's the case, add about 1 teaspoon of oil per steak you're cooking.
4. Cook each steak for 4 to 6 minutes per side. Cover and allow to rest a few minutes before serving in order to allow the meat to retain its natural juices.
Mango Salsa Directions
1. Wash and cut all ingredients that need to be chopped, diced or minced.
2. To the bottom of your salsa bowl, add the salt and lemon or lime.
3. Add all of the other ingredients on top of the salt and lemon or lime. Do not mix until just before serving.
4. When steaks are done, add the salsa to the top of the meat for a pretty presentation, or on the side for those who prefer it that way.
Recipe: Chickpea & Sun-Dried Tomato Salad
By Yvonne Maffei
Lately I've been soaking and cooking my own dry beans — everything from black beans to pinto beans and now chickpeas. I used to do it a lot more often than I do now, but I'm suddenly forcing myself to enjoy the health benefits of freshly cooked beans as well as the economic benefits. Beans are cheap in a can, but they can be even more economical dry. They plump up when soaked and can nicely surprise you with how much more you get when cooked. For example, in this recipe for Chickpea and Sun-Dried Tomato Salad, I soaked one cup of chickpeas and got about one and a half when cooked.
I was lured in by the amazingly fresh parsley and cilantro at my grocery store, so they immediately went into preparing this salad. Just remember to leave out the olive oil and lemon juice until the last moment. No sense in going through all the work to prepare such a lovely dish just to end up with soaked ingredients!
1 1/2 cup chickpeas (cooked) or 1 cup dried
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1/2 red onion, diced
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 green onion, finely chopped
1/2 cucumber, seeds removed and diced (approximately 1 cup)
Zest of one lemon
Salt, to taste
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to your liking
Juice of one lemon
1. If using fresh chickpeas, soak overnight. Once they have enlarged, boil the chickpeas for about 1 1/2 hours or until soft but not broken. If using canned chickpeas, just rinse them of the liquid that comes with them.
2. Add the fresh ingredients, but not the oil or lemon juice until ready to serve.
3. Toss and enjoy!
This salad is great with a sandwich or soup or can work as a side to just about any main meal with Mediterranean flavors.
Recipes above adapted from Yvonne Maffei's blog, My Halal Kitchen.
RENEE MONTAGNE: We've called a Muslim foodie, Yvonne Maffei, for some tasty ways to manage a summer fast. She writes the food blog MyHalalKitchen.com.
MONTAGNE: We're spending around 16 hours a day fasting. That means that we're not having anything to eat or drink. So during the times when we are eating - which is after the sun goes down - we have to really hydrate ourselves. So I always suggest people have lots of water-filled foods like squash, watermelon, things like that because they give you lots of water as you're eating them.
MONTAGNE: In fact, Maffei has a recipe that could help anyone beat the heat.
MONTAGNE: I've developed a recipe called a honeydew cooler, which is one of my favorites. And basically it's just half of a honeydew melon chopped up with a small guava, and those are kind of hard to find in a lot of stores, but if you go to an ethnic or Hispanic store, you'll tend to find them pretty often. So we have chopped honeydew melon, a small guava, a half of a mango and a fourth a cup of orange juice. And just put it in a blender, process it for about 30 seconds and you've got this really refreshing drink that is so tasty. Fruits that you wouldn't think to really mix together, but it's really delicious and it's very tropical.
MONTAGNE: Let me pick a couple of recipes that you have for the iftar dinner. You've got a recipe for hanger steak with mango salsa.
MONTAGNE: Beef is just an excellent source of protein and iron that we need, and we lose a lot of that when fasting. So I like to put a thin steak on the grill. It's not really a very heavy steak because hanger steak is usually cut pretty thin and it cuts really fast. And pair that with a mango salsa which is just tomatoes, chopped mango, white onions and some lime juice. It's really refreshing, and you can have that with a side of rice or couscous maybe. It gives you some energy rather than a sugar crash later on.
MONTAGNE: The most traditional way, I understand, to break the fast is with a date. Tell us why.
MONTAGNE: Well, the reason that there's a tradition in the Muslim world to break the fast with dates is because that's the tradition of the prophet Muhammad. Peace be upon him. That can be any kind of date. Interestingly enough, it has just the right amount of sugar in it to bring your body's glucose levels up. Because when you're - towards the end of your fast, you feel a little bit kind of lightheaded, a little bit off, you know. You really need something in your body, and then as soon as you have those dates, you start to feel a little bit more alive again.
MONTAGNE: Another key moment during Ramadan is the first meal of the day, what you eat to make it to sunset. Yvonne Maffei has a couple of strategies for the morning meal, the suhoor.
MONTAGNE: We set about three alarms in our house to make sure that we don't miss it, because you have to get up around 3:30 in the morning to have time to prepare a meal, sit down, eat it, and stop eating by around 4:30.
MONTAGNE: That being sunrise, right?
MONTAGNE: And Ramadan is not meant to be a hardship on us, so we're encouraged to have these meals.
MONTAGNE: As can be told by this conversation and these recipes you've just described, Ramadan isn't only about not eating. In some respect, I would think it's a time to actually enjoy the taste and the experience of food even more.
MONTAGNE: I would agree. I think that when you break your fast, you realize how much gratitude we need to have for the miracle of food. I mean, it is an absolute miracle that we have such variety on our plates, that we have any food at all. The fact that, you know, a seed can be planted in the ground and becomes a pepper or a tomato. That's really a beautiful thing, and I think when you go without it all day long you realize what you've been missing. You start to really savor things, and so some of my best meals are at the iftar time.
MONTAGNE: Yvonne Maffei writes the blog, My Halal Kitchen. Thank you very much for joining us.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.