Except for the ubiquitous date nut bread, I’ve never cooked with dates, and usually eat them only whenever I receive a gift of dried fruits at Christmastime. But all that changed after I hit the date mother lode on vacation last week in Southern California.
I had told my husband I was on the lookout for a date farm, so as we left Palm Springs, we took the local road – route 111 – rather than heading straight for the highway to start our drive through the desert to Scottsdale, Arizona. In less than 20 minutes, we were driving through Indio, in the Coachella Valley, where dates are an important crop.
I wasn’t disappointed when we came across this sight and my husband pulled to a quick stop:
Shields Date Garden, a date farm with a gift shop selling all kinds of dates and other dried fruits. There’s a cafe too with a 50s vibe, a garden out back, and a video you can watch entitled “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” Yes, you heard that right.
By Visitor7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26340574
The store sells many different varieties of dates, and we tasted samples of at least half a dozen types. My favorite was the large, sweet and creamy medjool, considered by some to be the “Cadillac” of dates.
Medjool dates were first grown in the California in the 1930s, from 11 offshoots of trees imported by the USDA from Morocco. The original trees in Morocco were destroyed by disease and all the Medjool dates grown in the world today are descended from the offshoots brought to the California desert.
You can have a meal at the Shields cafe, or just try a date shake, which we did. I must admit it was a bit too sweet and too rich for my taste, and we were able to drink only a small amount.
I was glad to stock up on some medjool and deglet noor dates though, to bring home. Deglet Noor, which means “date of light,” are semi-dry dates originally from Algeria. Today they’re the leading commercial variety grown in the U.S. They ship well because they’re semi dry and are chewier, but they’re not as rich as medjools.
Before I eat them all out of hand, I do plan to make some sort of dessert with some of these dates.
But since I’m not eating any cakes, cookies or pastries until Easter, I made a recipe for a savory dish from the Lebanese cookbook author, Maureen Aboud.
Her recipe uses brussels sprouts, walnuts and dates, and it’s a winning combination of sweet and bitter flavors.
I started by toasting some walnuts lightly in a dry saucepan, then I removed them and wiped the pan clean.
Then I added a little butter and olive oil, placed the sprouts cut side down, seasoned them, and put a lid on top.
Check them in four or five minutes. If you let them cook too long, or at too high a heat, they might brown too quickly, or even burn. So keep an eye on them.
Add the rest of the ingredients according to the recipe and you’ll have a quick, easy to prepare and delicious side dish.
Just a few more “nerd notes” about dates:
They’re the oldest known cultivated tree crop and one of the most expensive to produce.
From the time a date palm is planted, it can be 8 to 10 years before the first commercial crop is harvested. Though the date palm is a desert plant, it requires as much water as a willow.
Each female tree produces 150 to 300 pounds of dates per year, depending on the variety.
The trees at Shields Date Garden are 15 to 90 years old. To harvest the dates, workers climb permanent ladders that are attached to each tree and moved higher every few years as the trees grow.
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⅓ cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
Trim and halve the brussels sprouts.
In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the brussels sprouts cut-side down, and season lightly with salt and pepper. I covered with a lid at this point, but keep an eye on them because they’ll burn quickly if on high heat. Mine cooked in only four or five minutes. Cook until the brussels sprouts are golden brown, adding more olive oil if the pan gets too dry. Stir the brussels sprouts and add the wine or lemon juice to deglaze the pan for about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and cook at medium high heat, stirring occasionally until the brussels sprouts are tender. Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a serving bowl, combine the brussels sprouts with the dates and walnuts. Serve immediately.
There’s nothing like the intense flavor of summer vegetables – juicy, red tomatoes, crunchy, sweet Jersey corn and more … but when autumn comes, I’m in love all over again with squash. This fall, I came back from Europe to a plethora of ripe butternut squash in the garden.
They were used for roasting, for soups and before they were all gone, for this pasta dish that I saw on my friend Stacey’s blog, originally from Cooking Light magazine.
If you’ve got vegetarians sharing the table at Thanksgiving, you could eliminate the bacon, and they’d never miss the turkey if you present this dish. The only problem is that the vegetarians will be fighting off the rest of the meat eaters who want a second helping of this mac n’ cheese.
Instead of the traditional elbow macaroni, I wanted something a little more festive, so I used torcinelli, from an artisanal pasta maker, found at a local Italian grocery store.
The vegetables and the bacon were roasted together. I used another pan to roast the onions and mushrooms that were cut in half. Make the sauce while the pasta is cooking, then mix everything together, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese and pop it in the oven.
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved 1 red onion, sliced 3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 lb. mushrooms, halved
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut up into cubes about six slices of bacon olive oil kosher salt hot pepper flakes 12 oz. pasta
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 T. butter
fresh sage leaves for garnish, optional
1 cup milk 2 cups of chicken stock 2 tbsp butter 1 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or your favorite cheese) small bunch of sage leaves, chopped
Using 2 baking sheets, lay out the squash cubes, the brussels sprouts and the bacon. Drizzle the veggies with olive oil and kosher salt.
Roast in a 425F oven for 20-25 minutes, until the bacon is crispy. If the bacon is crispy before the vegetables are tender, remove from the pan first.
On another pan, lay out the red onion slices and the 3 large unpeeled garlic cloves and the halved mushrooms. Drizzle w/ some olive oil and place the in the oven for about 15-20 minutes.
Crumble the bacon and set aside. Remove the garlic cloves to a cutting board and set aside.
Using an 8″ x 10″ casserole pan, lay out the sprouts and cooked squash. Using a fork or potato masher, mash down on the squash cubes to create a puree or mash. I like to leave some texture so I didn’t make it a really smooth puree.
Add in the cooked onions, mushrooms and bacon pieces. Mix the vegetables together in the baking dish.
While your pasta is boiling, make the cheese sauce.
Smash the roasted garlic cloves with the back of a knife to remove the skins. Cut the garlic into pieces.
In a heavy saucepan, add the milk, roasted garlic cloves, cheese, butter, sage leaves and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and whisk until it is a nice even consistency, only a few minutes. It won’t be really thick, but don’t worry, once it’s in the casserole, the other ingredients will absorb the sauce and thicken it.
Season the sauce with a pinch of salt, black pepper and hot pepper flakes.
When the pasta is done, drain and add to the casserole pan with the vegetables. Mix together.
Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and vegetables and mix together.
Melt the 2 T. butter and mix in the bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle on top of the casserole.
Lower the oven temperature to 375F.
Place casserole back into the oven for 20 more minutes, until everything is blended and melted and bread crumbs are browned.