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.
If you’ve never eaten a persimmon, they’re in supermarkets for a short time only, so give them a try before the season is over. There are many varieties of persimmons, and they fall into either the “astringent” variety, like Hachiya persimmons, or the “non astringent” variety, like the Fuju. Persimmons taste sweet and delicious when perfectly ripe, but if you bite into one before it’s nearly mushy, you’re likely to get a chalky taste that will make your mouth pucker.
Persimmon trees are commonly grown throughout Italy, and are very popular in Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan. Here in New Jersey, however, it’s unusual to find someone growing a persimmon tree, and if you do, it’s a good guess their ancestry is Italian, like my friends Eleanor and Anna. Each year they’re kind enough to supply me with some persimmons from their tree.
This year I thought I’d make a cake with them.
I searched the internet and came across many recipes, but the one on the website “Andrea’s Recipes,” using dates and with a lemon glaze, looked particularly enticing. It proved to be every bit as delicious as I had hoped. If you decide to make it, let me warn you that my basket of persimmons did not ripen all at the same time. As each one ripened, I squished it down and put the pulp into a container and froze it. When I had enough of the pulp collected (it took about six persimmons to make two cups worth), I thawed out the pulp and proceeded with the recipe. It’s worth the effort, believe me.
medium mesh strainer
stand mixer with paddle attachment
12-cup Bundt pan, greased and floured
fine mesh strainer
1-1/2 to 2 pounds common persimmons, less if you use Hachiya or Fuyu persimmons (enough to make 2 cups of puree)
2 sticks (1/2 pound/227 g) unsalted butter
2 cups (350 g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups (240 ml) persimmon puree
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups (360 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup (125 g) chopped dates or golden raisins (I used dates, but soaked them in 1/2 cup rum until they absorbed some of the liquid)
1 cup chopped pecans, optional
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup (130 g) powdered sugar, sifted
1. Preheat the oven to 325° F/165° C. Set rack in the middle of the oven.
2. PERSIMMON PUREE: Rinse the persimmons and remove the brown or green calyx. Place the strainer over the 2-quart bowl. One at a time, place a persimmon in the strainer and press down hard with the spatula. Press and move the spatula around, forcing the pulp through the mesh. Remove the seeds and skin and continue with the remaining persimmons. (Note: This can take a while when using small persimmons, so plan for it.)
3. In the bowl of the stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until it it light and fluffy.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well each time. Add the persimmon puree and vanilla extract, and mix well.
5. In the medium bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda. Add to the butter mixture and stir gently, tossing in the chopped dates. Do not overmix.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 60 to 75 minutes, checking every 5 minutes after 1 hour has passed. When a tester comes out dry with just a few crumbs clinging, remove the pan from the oven. If the tester has no crumbs the cake will be dry.
7. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a wire rack and cool completely.
8. MAKE THE GLAZE: While the cake is cooling, whisk together the the powdered sugar and lemon juice until the glaze is smooth.
9. Pour the glaze over the cake while warm. Allow to cool completely, then slice and serve.