"Dates, we could all use more of them ;)" said the DC metro food tours guide during an Eastern market food tour I took with my friend Sylvie this past Sunday. And I cannot agree more. While I've been through this market a few dozen times, I always pass by certain items - like dates. As part of the tasting tour, dates were one of our treats. And I have to say, WHY don't I eat more of them? I've had them before, but I never buy them, and they are sublime!
As I took some out tonight I thought to myself, why don't we eat them more often? Where do they originate from? What do they go best with? What kind of nutrients are in them? What's the best way to store them? Are they grown sustainably? I know nothing about dates! And every delicious taste experience should be an opportunity to learn. So I dug up the answers, and if you're as curious as I am to find out all about dates, read on!
Ok, granted, dates aren't the most attractive thing to look at, but give these sticky shriveled fruits a chance. They come from the date palm, a tree native to North Africa and the Middle East. This I had a hunch about as they were commonplace in Egypt when I visited in 2007/08. The Egyptians consider dates as a symbol of fertility. The fruits are cultivated in other parts of the world too (with similar sub-tropical, desert like conditions, Southern Cali being one) and are one of the world's oldest cultivated fruits.
Sustainable? - well, somewhat. The date palm back in the day was used in its entirety (for food, for drink, for weaving, for fuel) and did literally sustain livelihoods. Known still today as the bread of the desert these dates have the highest natural sugar content of any fruit. Admittedly, I need to do more research on how sustainably this treat is grown these days..
Season - Fresh dates are available Aug-Dec and dried ones are found year round.
There are 3 types but many varieties - soft (like Medjool which are what I ate), semi-soft (like Deglet Noor,), and dry (Thoory). They ripen in 4 stages. I'm familiar with the ripe soft stage.
Storage - so semi-soft dates should be refrigerated (upto 6 months) and stored in air tight containers, but, be aware that they will get hard. For the ripe ones, if you eat them often, store in cupboards, and if not, store them in the fridge and to soften them up, soak them in warm water. You can use the date water i'm sure, don't toss away that flavor!
Nutritional value/health benefits - interestingly, nutrients and vitamin content vary with different types and ripeness of dates. These little desert wonders are chock full of carbs, fiber, potassium, and some protein. And they are very good for those with digestive disorders. I read that they are a cure for alcohol intoxication too.
Now, how can you eat them? Just as they are (in fact they can be great on-the-go travel snacks), but first, please take a moment to smell them. The natural caramel-like syrupy smell is so divine. Then bite into the moist glossy date and enjoy. The food tour paired dates with almonds - take the seed out and stuff the almond in - really good combination. Or stuff them with peanut butter as an old colleague of mine introduced me to ages ago (thanks Rebecca F!).
And of course, you can cook with them! - I went on epicurious and got 154 hits. Pick one and go have a date!