The Perfect Date

Sweeten Up Your Holiday Cooking With This Natural Treat

    When I was a kid in Vermont, my grandmother would always send a plate of dried fruit to us at Christmastime. I couldn’t stand any of it. But I liked the little wood fork that came with it, and one year I took a chance and stabbed a date. After I stuffed it into my curious mouth, I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet flavor and soft texture. Every year after that I looked forward to the fruit platter just for the dates, and I would try to get to it before my competition—three sisters, a brother and my parents. When we moved west and I became of age to work a real job at a produce stand, lo and behold, there were dates. Not just a few mixed in with other dried fruit, but bags full of just dates. This became my new “candy,” replacing Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups without a second thought.
    What I didn’t know at the time was that there are more than 1,500 varieties of dates. They grow on date palms (one of many species of fruit-bearing palm trees) and have been cultivated as food for thousands of years, probably originating in the Middle East. (At one time Iraq led the world in date production, but cultivation and exports have declined dramatically in recent years.) Here in California, where Spanish missionaries planted the fruit in the mid-1800s, more than 4,000 acres are devoted to the date industry around Palm Desert, Coachella, Indio and Thermal.
    Dates grow in clusters at the end of a long spine that sticks out from under the fronds on the leafy top of the tree. Each cluster produces anywhere from 600 to 1,700 dates. The labor-intensive harvest is performed by specially trained “palmeros” who either climb up to the crest of the palms or are hoisted up on platforms. They cut the date clusters from the stalk and lower them down to the field workers who then shake the dates from
the branches into field bins. From there the dates are transported to the packinghouse where they are cleaned, graded, sorted according to their firmness and packed in boxes for shipping.
    Soft dates have the lowest sugar content but are pleasant to eat and wonderful to cook with. Semi-firm dates have medium sugar, and firm fruit dates—which have been cured the longest by natural drying—have the highest sugar content. In fact, sugar can be made from dates. A granular sweetener made from ground, dehydrated dates is great on oatmeal and in cooking. Although it does not dissolve in liquids, it is unprocessed and is high in fiber, minerals and iron—a perfect replacement for processed white or brown sugars, which contain no nutrients at all.
    When selecting dates in the store, look for soft, semi-firm or firm (but not hard) dates; they will keep for up to a year in the refrigerator. They are high in iron and potassium. They also contain moderate amounts of folate and A and B vitamins. Research has shown that dates are beneficial for anemia and fatigue and can also help with constipation.
    The holidays are a perfect time for cooking with dates—as part of a fruit spread with figs, or in cookies, oat bars, fudge bars and many other tasty treats. Firm Medjool dates are the top sellers for fresh eating, and their full flavor and high sugar make them perfect for holiday cooking. If you plan to add dates to any of your recipes this year, remember to adjust the sugar to account for the dates’ high sugar content.
    There are several date varieties to choose from, including Deglet Noor, Bahri and Zahidi, as well as those prepared date-coconut rolls, but the Medjool remains the “Cadillac” of dates. So add some dates to your holiday mix, and maybe a candy habit will be replaced by the perfect date.
—By Dan Avakian
—Photography by Paul Skrentny

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