Got a date?

tasty stuff

One fortuitous discovery for me was that I learned I like dates.  Wait!…  make that I L-O-V-E dates!  You see before sampling the fresh succulent varieties available to me in California, I associated dates with that desiccated stuff that ended up in my tapioca pudding and annoyingly clung to my teeth.  It was sticky and sweet and as far as I could tell did not have much else going for it.  Then I moved to San Francisco and for reasons, I can never explain I was drawn to trying the varieties at the farmers market and my culinary life has improved substantially.  The closest experience I can compare this to is growing up believing Taco Bell equaled Mexican Food.  Whoa!  Its a wonder the heavens did not open up, and harps plucked when I sampled the real deal – that explosion of flavor, textures and color.  I felt the same about those dates!  Wow, why did I have to spend years eating only the dried, hardened stuff only to discover what an incredible treat the fresh stuff really was?  The years I’ve wasted, and it only makes me wonder what other misconceptions I yet to overturn.

A Bit About Dates

Phoenix dactylifera — you know the Date Palm, is extensively cultivated for its edible sweet fruit. How extensively?  Try to the tune of about 1500 varieties.  When I learned that fact, my thought of one day sampling every variety took a serious hit.  I realize I have my work cut out for me!  Dates have a long storied past having been a staple in the Middle East for over a millennia. They are believed to have originated around the Persian Gulf, and have been cultivated as early as 4000 BC.  Banish any thoughts that the palm tree is a small plant, a full grown beauty can exceed 80 feet or 25 meters.  They take 4 to 7 years after planted to bear fruit and then can produce a viable harvest for the next 7 to 10 years.  Not the most efficient of plants from a growers perspective as not all the fruit on a tree ripens at the same time so multiple harvests are required. In later times, this fruit was spread around South and South West Asia, northern Africa, and Spain and Italy. Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by the Spaniards by 1765, in the Missions.

For that critical date sweet talk, knowing the three main cultivar groups is helpful:

  1. soft (Barhee, Halawy, Khadrawy, Medjool)
  2. semi-dry (e.g. Dayri, Deglet Noor, Zahidi)
  3. dry (e.g. Thoory)

More sweet talk to consider to describe your date.  Dates ripen in four stages, which are known worldwide by their Arabic names kimri (unripe), khalal (full-size, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft), tamr (ripe, sun-dried). Depending on the variety, the date may be high in natural sugars. As the date fruit dries, the sugars concentrate in the dense, moist flesh, ultimately forming sugar crystals on the date’s surface.  If a date has formed sugar crystals, it is usually less than ideal to eat, as the flesh will be dry and leathery.  Because dates contain little water, their size and flavors do not diminish upon drying.

Kinds of Dates, just to whet your appetite

Amir Hajj or ‘Amer Hajj’ — from Iraq, these are soft with a thin skin and thick flesh, sometimes called “the visitor’s date” because it is a delicacy served to guests.

Barhi or (barhee) (from Arabic barh, “a hot wind”) — these small fellas are nearly cylindrical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick extremely soft flesh and rich flavour.  One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape as opposed to dry, like a raisin).  Some date lovers like to eat these lovelies frozen like hard candy.

Deglet Noor (Arabic: ‘translucent’ or ‘date of light’) — so named because the center appears light or golden when held up to the sun. This is a leading date in Algeria, the USA, and Tunisia – it accounts for 75% of California’s crop.  It is semi-dry and not very sweet with a delicate and distinctive flavor.

Empress — developed by the DaVall Family in Indio California USA from a seedling of ‘Thoory’. It is large, and is softer and sweeter than ‘Thoory’ with a distinctive coloring with a light tan top half and brown bottom half.

Halawy (Halawi) (Arabic: ‘sweet’) — these are soft, and extremely sweet, small to medium in size. With their caramel- and molasses-like flavor and pronounced sweetness, halawy, which were introduced from Iraq in 1902, are considered by many growers to have a classic date taste.

photos from hotgarden.net

Khadrawy (Arabic: ‘green’) — a cultivar favored in the Middle East, it is a soft, very dark date.  Usually reddish brown and slightly wrinkled, these dates have a good amount of flesh and a mild caramel flavor. Khalasah (Arabic: ‘quintessence’) — one of the most famous palm cultivars in Saudi Arabia, famous for its sweetness level that suits most people. Its fruit is called ‘Khlas’.

Khastawi (Khusatawi, Kustawy) — this is the leading soft date in Iraq; it is syrupy and small in size, prized for dessert.

Medjool or (Mujhoolah) — from Morocco, also grown in the USA, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel is a large, sweet and succulent date with a golden brown to brown black skin and a rich tasting flesh with hints of molasses and caramel.  One of my favorites, and if you want to stuff a date with goat cheese – look no further.

Mozafati — from Iran, and often named “Bam (Mozafati) dates”, after a city in that province. They are medium sized dark, soft and sweet dates.  It is best for fresh consumption, because of its long shelf life.

Sayer (Sayir) (Arabic: ‘common’) — these dates are dark orange-brown, of medium size, soft and syrupy. Sekkeri — (literaly. sugary) Dark brown skin; distinctly sweet and soft flesh, from Saudi Arabia.

Thoory (Thuri) –  the “bull’s date” popular in Algeria, this dry date is brown-red or brown -yellow  when cured with a bluish bloom and very wrinkled skin. Its flesh is sometimes hard and brittle but the flavour described as sweet and nutty.  This date keeps well so is popular with travelers.

Zahidi — these medium sized, oblong, light golden-brown semi-dry dates are very sugary, and sold as soft, medium-hard and hard.  They have little flesh in proportion to their large pit.  They are often processed into date crystals and other food products.

I bolded the names of some of the dates that I recognized, and have eaten here in California so I’m going to go out on a limb and say you can probably find them in the US.  Native Food and Wine also has a great post on this dessert candy.

Top Ten Dates Producers [source: wikipedia]

  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Pakistan
  • Algeria
  • Iraq
  • Sudan
  • China
  • Libya

Dates + Food

Dates have got to be some of the most versatile of foods.  They’re great in their raw form, perfect snack food.  Pitted and stuffed with goat cheese and nuts -they’re a sophisticated and simple snack.  Let them participate in the current porcine craze with a bit of bacon wrapped around them for that perfect combination of sweet savory.  You get the idea.

In addition to the fruit, other parts of the date palm are also edible:  young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart of the palm.  As it may have been suspected, eating anything called the “heart” of plant, kills it.  The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to extend its usefulness in making bread. The flowers of the date palm are also edible.  The female flowers are used in such diverse dishes as salads or mixed with dried fish as a condiment.  Saveur Magazine has some great date ideas from date shakes, to date pie, to bacon wrapped dates with almonds to date honey.

I created the following jam and its quickly become a family favorite mostly because of its versatility.

the good stuff

My (OysterCulture’s) Date Jam/Spread

Makes 6 pint jars

Ingredients

2 (13oz) containers of date paste¹
2 – 3 Thai peppers, finely minced – depending on taste²
1 c brown sugar, honey or other sweetener of choice
2 c water
1/2 c apple cider vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp crushed cardamon seeds
¼ tsp star anise
½ tsp salt

Directions

In a heavy duty 2 -3 quart pot combine all ingredients and let simmer for about 20 minutes until the contents, except for the cinnamon stick,  is incorporated and resembles apple sauce.  You not can and it keeps well in the refrigerator, or you can follow canning instructions for extended preservation.

Notes:

date paste

¹You can use fresh dates, you just need to pit them and run them through a food processor.  I was lazy and have found these packets of date paste a great substitute.

² Two chilies added little heat but a nice depth to the flavor.  People are surprised to find them an ingredient, especially heat adverse folks.  Adjust as you like.

How I like to use it:

  • Always good on toast
  • Great with cheese (chevre)
  • Nice on oatmeal
  • Lovely in Greek yogurt
  • Awesome on pork
Update me when site is updated

29 comments for “Got a date?

  1. sepideh
    February 25, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    hey woman,
    you forgot to mention serving dates with tahini…yum :)
    sepideh

  2. February 25, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    Dates are one of my favorite fruits. I didn’t know about the 1500 varieties wow!…I wonder which is the one that I’ve here.

    The available dates here come from Morocco and Spain, but they’re still not very popular for the “common” palate. Conclusion less common is the date jams..I’d be delighted to taste it :)

    All the best,

    Gera

  3. February 25, 2010 at 5:53 PM

    I just recently got into dates. I’m not sure why I avoided them for so long, but I enjoyed them quite a bit. They taste really good stuffed with cheese. Yum!!

  4. February 25, 2010 at 7:10 PM

    You know one of the best things I’ve ever had? A date and banana milkshake. Oh my! Totally sublime till the very last drop.

  5. February 25, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    The stuffed and wrapped date is the best way it’s been served around these parts. Whenever it’s sweet, salty and savory, it’s the best date in the world.

  6. February 25, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    The date I ever dated is Mr Red Date – usually we meet each other openly in Chinese soup. ;p

  7. February 26, 2010 at 4:59 AM

    I thought Medjool dates were the ultimate dates, but now I see I have to try a variety of others to see if this is true or not. Great piece as always.

  8. February 26, 2010 at 7:16 AM

    Growing up in NYC,my experience with dates was the dried (cloyingly sweet and hated them) and date-nut bread (adored, still do and cannot get it in MN).So this is when I envy the coasts and thier ability to get so much fresh food. The varieties amaze me – lots of wonderment there. The jam though – oh looks heavenly-love the bits of heat and imagining it with chevre.

  9. February 26, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    I love dates but don’t get often enough! Your date jam sounds so good! Writing down dates on my shopping list!

  10. admin
    February 26, 2010 at 6:27 PM

    Woman – you are so right, that one tops the list! Dates and tahini rock!

    Gera – I was shocked at that number too. We get a lot of ours from the same sources. There are also some CA growers too.

    Jenn – You are right – dates + cheese go together very well!

    Carolyn – I can see where that would be subline and you’ve made me incredibly jealous!

    Duo – You’re talking my language!

    TigerFish – sometimes it pays to play it shy, but I bet you’ve warmed up to each other nicely =)

    Crystal – I know, I am deep into the research myself, it is hard work!

    Claudia – Oooh date nut bread – now that sounds delicious! I can vouch for the jam, hard to take credit when you are working with some wonderful ingredients!

  11. February 26, 2010 at 6:44 PM

    I love to eat dates as a snack. But it has a religious importance for us, we generally eat it after dinner in Ramadan (muslims’ fast month). I sometimes make candies of dates just by mixing its puree with orange juice and some nuts. Never thought of making jam from dates. Thanks for the idea!

  12. February 26, 2010 at 9:19 PM

    I dunno…I never really liked dates that much…I wonder if jujube is also considered a kind of date?

  13. February 27, 2010 at 4:13 AM

    I’ve had your site bookmarked for ages and have always been an admirer of how well written and researched your stories are. We did a bit about dates on Native Food & Wine a little while ago. See link below.

    http://www.nativefoodandwine.com/features-journal/2009/9/29/dates-the-deserts-candy.html

    Looking forward to your next post. Great stuff.
    Regards,
    Kevin Lynch
    Native Food & Wine

  14. February 27, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    I LOVE dates too. I add them to smoothies as a sweetener–so good. Your jam sounds fantastic, I’ll have to bookmark it for later!

  15. February 27, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    I love dates stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon!!!I am drooling here :) The jam sounds wonderful!

  16. admin
    February 27, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    Zerrin – Thanks for reminding me – I remember your great post on dates and the connection to Ramadan. I’ll have to connect to that post.

    Sophia – Knowing you lived on the EC like myself, it may be that you have not encountered to “good” stuff yet. Now that you are on SoCal maybe you can sample. The jujube is a type of red date.

    Kevin – Wow, thank you so much for the compliment and the link. That was a super post and a great reminder of the wonderful fruit. I wish I had remembered to encorporate dessert candy in my post. Love that connection.

    Lisa – You know I should add them more to smoothies, for us they’re the perfect snack food. We love to munch on them after a race and as a result I rarely get to combine them with all those wonderful combinations such as cheese, bacon and procuitto.

    Erica – I agree, its hard to think of a better match. I’m very proud of the way that jam turned out. I had to make it a few times to get the proportions right as I’m a tweaker and rarely measure.

  17. February 28, 2010 at 1:47 AM

    Hello my friend! Brussels calling!

    I so loved your title too! hahaha,…I also didn’t know that much about dates. I also love your home made date spread! Yummie!

  18. February 28, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    I love to munch on them wrapped up in parma ham! they really are addictive. And that jam, sheer perfection!

  19. March 1, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    I do love a good medjool, and your jam sounds incredible! This post got me thinking back to the date shakes in Palm Springs. I need to visit again!

  20. March 1, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    My husband adores dates. I had never had them until he introduced them to me just a couple of months ago. Yummy! :)

  21. admin
    March 2, 2010 at 5:43 PM

    Sophie – My Brussels friend! I have to say its darn tasty!

    Ruth – Glad you like it. Does anything not work with parma ham – yum!

    Lisa – Ah date shakes – yum!

    Sook – What a delicious voyage of discovery awaits you.

  22. March 4, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    I love dates! Your spread sounds so yummy. I never saw date paste – I think I would eat it by the spoonful.

  23. March 5, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    I’ve never had them fresh. Since I know Mexican food is much better than Taco Bell, then I must try them! They sound wonderful. I do want to start cooking and baking with them more for sweetness and I’ve considered using date sugar as well, but haven’t yet. I love that jam recipe. I’m going to give my first round of canning/jammin’ a go this summer.

  24. March 5, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    The first time I saw fresh dates, I was in shock. Didn’t realise they sold them fresh…..you learn everyday

  25. April 1, 2010 at 6:33 AM

    I am so glad you got over your dislike of dates! In the middle-east we love them ! I made some Saudi date cookies recently (no bake) and they were gone within minutes.
    Thanks for that jam recipe too, sounds like it could be amazing on a slice of bread!
    In our cuisine, we make a jam with whole dates, in a syrup, and serve it by itself on a plate with coffee, for something sweet
    I like all your explanantions re dates, too very informative

  26. admin
    April 1, 2010 at 8:22 AM

    Reeni – The date paste is a lifesaver – love it, I found mine in a Greek market.

    Lori – You have to try them fresh – there is simply no comparison. I think you will love the canning/jamming – the results are so rewarding

    Kitchen Butterfly – Agreed!

    Taste of Beirut – I am so glad too, otherwise I’d never know what I was missing. I cannot wait to look up your cookie recipe, sounds divine. I’ve had the whole dates in syrup and it is truly delicious. Thanks for sharing.

  27. April 6, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    Bookmarked. I’m such a sucker for jam recipes. You already had me at dates, then you threw in Thai chillis and I’m sold.

    I used to hate dates growing up. Can’t remember why. But then I also hated other dried fruits, especially dried persimmons (shudder). Now I just can’t have enough of them.

  28. April 3, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    If there is anything that I can take without running out of appetite then it is dates. Especially the medjool dates, they are so sweet and their health benefits are just too many.

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