Rich and sweet, dates make a great addition to breads, cakes, muffins and cookies as well as salads, grains and meat entrées.
Native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, these fruits grow in clusters on palm trees (Phoenix dactylifera). They have thin, papery skins that are green when unripe, and yellow, brown, black or red (depending on the variety) when ripe. Oval in shape, and about one to two inches in length, dates have a moist, sweet flesh surrounding a single, long, narrow seed.
Dates contain about 55% percent sugar when fresh, and the sugar content dramatically increases as the fruits dry. Their very sweet flavor makes them an excellent snack. They are also included in many dessert recipes and Middle Eastern dishes.
Dates may very well be man's first cultivated crop. Date palm orchards flourished near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) before 3,000 BC.
Dates are grouped into three varieties: soft, semi-soft and dry. The semi-soft Deglet Noor ("the date of light") is the most common commercial variety, accounting for 90% of California's crop. Favored because they hold their shape better than soft dates, Deglets are deep apricot orange to amber brown in color. They have a sweet, but delicate flavor.
Other popular varieties include the soft, rich Halawy, the greenish, caramel-flavored Khadrawy and the dry, egg-shaped Zahidi (Iraq's most common variety).
Fresh dates are available at some specialty markets from late summer through mid-fall. Look for fruits that are plump and soft, with smooth, shiny skins. Avoid very shriveled dates or those with mold or sugar crystals on the skin.
Dried dates are available year-round at most supermarkets. They are available packaged or in bulk, as well as pitted, unpitted or chopped.
Fresh: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to two weeks.
Dried: Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months; refrigerate for up to one year.
• Mix dates with granola and coconut for homemade trail mix.
• Toss with butter lettuce, toasted almonds and mandarin oranges for an elegant salad.
• Add dates to poultry stuffings for subtle sweetness.
• Use chopped dates in quick bread, muffin and chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie batters.
• Add chopped dates to simple side dishes like rice pilaf, couscous, barley and bulgur.
• Stir dates in tabbouleh and stuff in a pita sandwich.