Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Dates

Dried dates are easy to pass by. Their appearance, dark and shriveled, maybe even a bit dusty looking, is not alluring. The recipes we associate with them – most often stuffed with a bit of nut or blue cheese – seem terribly old-fashioned. Central only to the domain of the health-food store, where they’re baked into leaden loaves of date bread, or our grandmother’s pantry, where they share shelf-space with the prunes, dates seem a relic of the past.

But what a past they have. Dates have a history that is as romantic and intriguing as an epic adventure story – full of perilous journeys, life and death struggle and, of course, a few steamy scenes, too.

A Brief History

The history and symbolism of dates traces back for thousands of years, nearly to the beginning of history. Remains of dates have been found back as far as the Neolithic period; there is evidence that they were gathered by people up to eight thousand years ago. Date palms were also one of the earliest cultivated foods, the first groves being established roughly five thousand years ago in what is now Iraq.

The date palm is, in fact, integral to desert life. So much so, it is considered the “tree of life” for its ability to provide the necessary elements of survival – food, drink and shelter. All aspects of the plant can be utilized. Even the plant’s shade provides respite for man, beast and crops that would otherwise wither in the punishing desert sun. Without it, civilization would not have been established in the unforgiving regions of the desert that would be completely uninhabitable without this miracle fruit.

Our own American history with the date is equally intriguing. Dates came to the United States as part of an “Indiana Jones” like mission sponsored by the Department of Agriculture in 1898, which solicited men to travel the world to obtain new, exotic food crops to establish in America. Two members of the group, botanist David Fairchild and his colleague, Walter Swingle, investigated the date palm and thought its ability to thrive in desert conditions made it a perfect match for the Coachella Valley of California, known as the American Sahara. Swingle took on the perilous journey of traveling the Middle East to procure date palm shoots which he then transplanted in the Valley, laying the cornerstone of what was to become the epicenter of today’s date palm groves.

In the early to mid-1900s, nursery owners planted thousands of date palms throughout the Coachella Valley. Towns in the area road the wave of interest in exotic Arabia spurred by movies such as The Queen of Sheba, decorating their date stands like bazaars and temples to capitalize on the fruit’s exotic origins.

Today, southern California remains the leading producer in domestic dates but produces only a fraction of the world’s supply, which is predominately grown in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Factual Nibbles

  • One date palm typically produces 100 pounds of fruit, a prolific tree can yield two or three times as much.

  • Dates’ indefinite shelf life, high-density nutrition and portability makes the food imperative to nomadic tribes such as the Bedouin who serve guests the dried fruit along with coffee to refresh them from their journey.

  • The scientific name of the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, refers to its ability to rise out of the searing heat of the desert like its mythological namesake bird the phoenix that rises from the ashes to live again.

Cultivation

The date palm can grow up to an impressive one hundred feet tall and live more than a hundred years. They are known to like their “feet in the water and head in the sun,” meaning that they dig their toes (aka roots) in the sand to access underground water but need very arid, sunny weather to thrive. Although the plant can survive in temperate regions such as the southern United States and even as far north as British Columbia, the plant will only produce fruit in desert climates. Daytime temperatures in the upper nineties and low 100s Fahrenheit are balmy to the palm.

Date palms produce both male and female plants and will reproduce prolifically by seed. However, under cultivation, they must be hand-pollinated to control the balance of fruit bearing female plants and non-fruit bearing male plants. Date farmers gather the pollen from the fragrant, flowering male plants and dust it onto the just-opened female flowers. Often times, the male flowers are bound to the female buds so that the fertilization can occur over the few days it takes for the female plants to fully open to receive the pollen. Sort of like dating dates.

The pollinated female plants produce berries that grow and ripen over the hot summer season. Toward the end of the season, ripe berries are often covered to prevent birds from feasting on the fruit. The ripe fruit is then collected by hand and, in a few varieties, eaten raw, but mostly allowed to dry to reach their full flavor.

Seasonality

Dates like to soak up all of the heat of summer and are fully ripe at the end of it. In California, that means that they are harvested in September, October and November, after the region’s hottest days have acted on the fruit.

Environmental Impact 

Date palms are extremely drought tolerant. Their roots are expert at seeking out underground sources of water. The plants have been known to survive for several years without a single rainfall. However, a plant denied of water will not produce fruit. They can also withstand water-logged conditions as well, as long as the water is aerated, such as by a running stream. Date palms can also tolerate a high level of salinity in the soil and do well seaside.

Dates are often fumigated after harvest to eliminate contamination by pests. Although efforts are being made to phase out its usage, methyl bromide is often employed. Sulphuryl fluoride and phosphine are also used. Organic fumigation methods include treating the fruit with carbon dioxide, storing them briefly in a low-oxygen environment, heating the fruit or freezing it.

Dates are often coated with vegetable oil, glucose syrup, corn syrup, date syrup, sorbitol or glycerol to improve their appearance in the marketplace.

The Environmental Working Group rates the dried dates that they have tested as low concern food (as low as 1.5 for on a scale of 1-10), meaning that the combined pesticide levels, nutritional values and production methods used raise relatively few red flags. 

Characteristics

What to look for

Date palms are slender and tall. They are topped by feathery fronds that grow out of central ribs. The trunk is covered by layers of dead leaf bases that form a sort of scale-like covering when trimmed during cultivation. Both male and female plants produce flowers; the female’s are on long, waxy strands; the males have shorter fragrant creamy colored bunches. Only pollinated berries are edible and sweet. They start out creamy white and color as they ripen.

There are numerous varieties of dates that range in size from small and round to as plump and long as your thumb. The color of ripe dates ranges anywhere from golden-yellow, amber, bright red to deep-brown depending on the cultivar type. Dried dates vary in color from amber to very dark brown. They have a thin, crinkly skin, pulpy flesh and a single seed in the middle of each fruit. All dates can be classified into one of three groups: soft, semi-dry and dry.

Soft dates are varieties that can be eaten fresh or dried. Fresh dates can be tricky to find outside of the Middle East; your best bet is to seek out local farmers’ markets in the fruit’s arid growing regions. Barhi are among the softest and sweetest of all dates and can be eaten out of hand. Medjool is another soft date variety that is enjoyed dried and is the most popular date in the United States.

Semi-dry are the most common dried date. They are soft, chewy and sweet. Popular varieties include the Deglet Noor – which is the most widely grown variety in the world. The name means "Date of Light" and the amber color is translucent when held to a light.

Dry dates are tough and fibrous when fresh and even more so when dried. Their sturdy character, however, makes them a necessity for nomadic tribes who pack them for long treks to feed both rider and animal. Thoory is a widely eaten dry date, also called a "bread" date because its dry texture can be ground into flour.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Dates are highly nutritious, packed with essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. They are often eaten by nomadic people on long journeys or those breaking fast because dates are loaded with simple sugars that quickly replenish the body’s energy. Dates are high in dietary fiber and are often eaten as a laxative.

They contain tannins, which are anti-infective and anti-inflammatory. Dates are also a good source of Vitamin A, Iron and potassium, and are rich in calcium, manganese, copper, and magnesium.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Although most often grown for its fruit, many parts of the date palm are edible.  The heart of the date palm tree is tender and succulent. The young leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The stones of the fruit can be ground and made into cakes for animal feed.

The wood, though soft, can be used in building. The leaves make good thatching for roofs and can be woven into baskets and mats.

The date fruit itself can, in some varieties, be eaten fresh but is most often dried. It can also be made into paste, sugar, jam, juice, syrup, vinegar and alcohol. Dry varieties of dates can be ground into flour.

Storage

Dates contain up to 80 percent sugar when dried which preserves the fruit indefinitely. Keep date in an airtight container to prevent spoilage due to humidity or pest infestation.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

Most varieties of dates are dried. The process can be as simple as laying the dates out on a tarp in a single layer to dry in the sun or through the use of a dehydrator.

Recipes

Try dates in these great recipes:

Moroccan Lamb Tagine

Date Newtons

Date Wraps

Caramel Chocolate Slices

Celery Salad with Dates, Almonds and Parmesan