Mersu are not just for dessert, anymore.
The addition of some combinations of Nippur – Nusku tablet ingredients – cheese, wine, raisins, figs, apples yields delicious savory treats – that could serve as appetizers, or main parts of a light meal.
It is unknown exactly what sort of cheese the Mesopotamians had, but most cultures have at least one variety (usually more) of soft cheese, hard cheese and a blue or molded cheese. I thought that a yogurt cheese like labneh would be a good approximation for a soft cheese; parmesan, asiago or romano could serve as a hard cheese; and gorgonzola could serve as a stand in for their blue cheese.
Mersu as Medjool Dates Stuffed with Cheese are the simplest of the savory mersu to make. Just slice the dates, remove the pit and stuff with the cheese or cheese based mixture of your choice. I think that the extra-large medjool dates are the best for this. They also have a robust flavor that stands up to cheese well.
I made several varieties: 1.)Dates stuffed with labneh – with or without single spices such as ground coriander or ground cardamom; 2.) dates stuffed with gorgonzola or other blue cheese; and 3.) dates stuffed with garlic and grated parmesan cheese. This last variety uses a simplified “moretum” – a spread loved by the Romans – to fill the dates.
Without added spice, the dates stuffed with labneh are creamy and sweet with the slight tang of yogurt, with spices they are delicious and full of flavor. The gorgonzola are really robust, as you might suspect, but the sweetness of the dates tempers the strong flavor of the cheese and makes them delicious.
for Mersu stuffed with soft or blue cheese
1 Medjool date, sliced and pitted
2 teaspoons of labneh
¼ teaspoon of ground coriander or cardamom (or to taste) (optional)
(You can use gorgonzola in the place of the labneh – I didn’t use spice with the gorgonzola because its flavor was quite strong already – feel free to try that as a variation if you so choose)
Spoon the cheese filling into the dates. The amount of filling used will vary with the size of the date. If using a spice, mix it prior to filling.
Ingredients for Mersu stuffed with hard cheese mixture
2 Medjool dates, sliced and pitted
¼ cup grated parmesan, asiago or romano or a mix
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil or grapeseed oil
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon sea salt
Mix the garlic and the cheese and moisten with olive oil to your desired consistency. If you want a drier filling, use less olive oil. Salt as desired. Stuff dates. Let sit for a while before serving to allow the garlic to flavor the cheese. I found that the longer the dates sit (within reason) the better they taste. Make them the night before, or the morning of a party or special dinner to really enjoy the blend of flavors they offer.
Mersu with Wine (Concord Must Syrup) This is what I did for the wine ingredient mentioned in the Nippur tablets – roll the pounded date balls in a syrup of concord grape must. If you don’t want to crush your own grapes, unsweetened 100% grape juice will reduce to a syrup just fine. I liked this so much that I made a version with unsweetened pomegranate syrup – it was delicious! The mild (grape) to severe (pomegranate)tanginess of the syrups played nicely with the naturally sweet dates
2 cups Deglet Noor dates
1 cup unsweetened pomegranate or grape juice (must be 100% juice)
Raisins (for stuffing) (optional)
Ground almonds, pinenuts, hazelnuts or semolina (for light coating) (optional)
In a small saucepan, bring the fruit juice to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to a low simmer and stir well. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the juice reduces to a syrup. Pour onto a plate and let cool so that you can work with the syrup (or you will burn your fingers).
While the syrup is reducing, make the date balls. Pulse the dates in a food processor until they are soft. Bit by bit, roll the pounded dates into small balls. You will have to wet your hands, and wash them several times to keep the dates from sticking to them. My date balls were about 2/3rds of the size of a ping-pong ball, and the two cups made 15 balls. Chill in the freezer for 5-10 minutes before rolling in warm syrup, or the balls will begin to disintegrate. The pomegranate syrup hardened up a lot quicker than the concord grape syrup – so you will have to work more quickly with that. The upside is it is a lot less messy than the concord grape syrup.
Roll the date balls in syrup, or spoon the syrup onto the balls and place on a rack to drain and harden up a bit. If desired, when the first layer is hardened, warm the syrup (in a microwave) and spoon a second layer over the date balls.
If you serve slightly chilled, the syrup coating will be firm enough not to be messy. However, if you want to serve room temperature or warm, place a light coating of ground nuts – almonds or pinenuts would have the least flavor impact. If you like the flavor of the nuts, lightly pan roasting them prior to coating will emphasize their flavor – but I found that this greatly diminishes the flavor of the syrup. Alternately, if you cannot eat nuts or don’t like the flavor of the types listed here that the Mesopotamians would have had, a light dusting of semolina will also coat the date balls rolled in syrup, making them easier to eat.
One cup of juice made enough syrup to roll about 5 date balls in two layers of syrup. I coated the leftover five balls in two things – grated parmesan cheese and roasted hazelnuts. Both were amazing!
Variation: Tuck a raisin inside the date ball before rolling in syrup.
The tablets speak on occasion of a woman with special skill in making mersu. With all of the variation possible with the tremendous lot of ingredients assigned to mersu (and we have only touched upon a few in this cookoff) I wonder if a genius for variation isn’t the special skill that the mersu cooks had. Not a secret only passed on from one cook to her apprentice, but a natural creativity for combinations resulting in delicious food.
All I know is that whether prepared as a savory appetizer or as a sweet appetizer or dessert, mersu are really delicious – consider serving for the upcoming holidays, and give your family and friends a flavorful ancient treat. (Words by Laura Kelley; photographs of Mersu with Cheese an Mersu with Wine (Must Syrup) also by Laura Kelley.)