Dates are hidden in many things we eat. They are a staple in energy bars, included in some chocolate mousse recipes, used in stews to add sweetness, and the main ingredient in sticky toffee pudding.
They grow in clusters underneath the fronds of date palm trees and are part of Middle Eastern food culture. They have been cultivated for thousands of years and are naturally sweet and rich in fibre, potassium and B vitamins. Dates are categorized as soft, semi-soft and dried, depending on how much moisture remains in the fruit. They are left to ripen on the tree until the desired moisture content is reached.
The two most popular varieties of dates shipped to Canada are Medjool and Deglet Noor. Medjool have a semi-soft texture and caramel-like taste. I like them for pureeing and stuffing. Reddish-brown Deglet Noor dates, which are semi-dried, have a firm flesh and a slightly nutty flavour. They star in long-cooked dishes and being eaten out of hand.
When purchasing dates, look for ones that have a shiny, smooth skin and avoid those that appear shriveled or have sugar crystals on their surface. They are past their prime. To pit them, make a small cut on the end and squeeze the pit out. Alternatively, cut the date through the long side and remove pit with the tip of a knife.
It is best to store dates in the refrigerator. In an air-tight container, dates will last up to four weeks in the refrigerator (dried dates will last up to a year). I freeze dates, as their high sugar content keeps them slightly soft. They defrost in 5 minutes.
Roasted dates with ham
These make a great little bite to serve with a salad. Without cutting all the way through, cut 12 pitted Medjool dates in half so they can open like a book. Stuff each date with about 1 teaspoon blue cheese or any cheese of choice. Pinch to close. Cut 6 slices of ham, prosciutto or serrano (even bacon is acceptable) lengthwise and wrap a piece around each date. Place dates on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with 1 tablespoon olive oil and bake at 400 F until ham is crispy and cheese is melting, about 10 minutes.
Stuffed dates with tahini and almonds
Remove pits from 12 Medjool dates. Mix ¼ cup tahini with ½ cup ground almonds, 4 teaspoons harissa paste and 1 teaspoon za’atar until it is paste-like. Roll into balls and stuff dates with the mixture. Sprinkle with more za’atar.
This salsa can take fish, lamb or chicken dishes to new heights. Mix 1 cup chopped dates with ½ cup chopped pistachios or other nuts, ¼ cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons chopped mint, 1 tablespoon chopped shallots, 1 teaspoon orange zest, ½ teaspoon each allspice, cinnamon, pepper, ¼ teaspoon each cardamom, ginger and chili flakes. Add salt to taste. Serve on the side.
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