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In season: Ancient dates add sweetness to appetizers, desserts

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It’s harvest season for dates. Not around here, of course; it’s far too cool for commercial date production.

Dates like it in Riverside County down south, around the aptly-named town of Thermal in the Coachella Valley, where the intense heat can knock the wind out of you.

Oasis Date Gardens is located there, growing about 10,000 trees of 16 varieties of dates organically on 175 acres. The prize date is the barhi, with a smooth texture and flavor of crème caramel and chocolate. At this writing, Oasis’s barhis are sold out, but this year’s crop will be available from mid-October until Thanksgiving. (oasisdate.com)

And make a note to order some yellow Khalil barhis, the fruit’s first edible stage when the dates are bright yellow and full of moisture. These are harvested and sold only in August, and they sell out quickly, so while America is distracted by the impending presidential election next August, you’ll be ordering Khalil barhis.

Some people stuff dates with cream cheese, but that pairs their abundance of sugar with an abundance of fat. If they have to be stuffed, rather stuff them with toasted, ground seeds or nuts held together with a little almond butter.

But they don’t have to be stuffed at all to be useful on the table. In the lands of the Middle East, especially Iraq, dates are a staple food and have been since recorded history began. They’re used to sweeten dishes but also in savory recipes.

The cultivation of dates began in the region between the Nile and the Euphrates rivers in the times of Sumer and ancient Egypt, when palms that had large or palatable fruits were selected from the wild palms with mostly inedible fruits.

Eventually, around 4,000 years ago, fruits approximating our modern dates were born. The caravans that wended their way from oasis to oasis across this region planted date palms wherever there was fire and water; that is, the palms flourished with their heads in the furnace heat of the desert and their feet rooted in the high water tables of the oases and brackish marshes.

Dates are classified as soft, semi-dry and dry. If you’ve had medjool dates, they are soft and ultra-high quality; the deglet noor variety is semi-dry and constitutes 90 percent of the California market — it’s the variety most people are used to seeing dried and packed into small boxes; the thoory variety is the most common dry variety — it’s called the bread date and is dry like pastry and was a staple of the nomads of the desert because it kept well without refrigeration. Millions of people in the Middle East still depend on dates of all kinds as a staple and nutritious food.

Most soft dates, like the choice barhis and medjools, are allowed to cure, which shrivels them somewhat and concentrates their sugar — which are invert sugars, by the way, which is important for those who can’t tolerate sucrose.

Deglet noor and zahidi are semi-dry dates, usually picked relatively dried from the palm and cured before shipping. But these few varieties only scratch the surface of what’s available — there are 600 varieties of dates in the world, most of them limited to areas of North Africa and the Middle East, with an especially strong presence around the southern Iraqi town of Basra.

Before the regime of Saddam Hussein drained the marshes of southern Iraq, the wet soil and fierce heat provided perfect conditions for date growing. It may be that plans are afoot to return the wetlands to their original marshy state, which would allow the reconstitution of date growing on the scale once practiced by the Marsh Arabs there.

Dates are energy-packed. Five dates, about 45 grams or a little over an ounce and a half, contain 115 calories, mostly from the 80 percent sugar content of ripe dates.

They also contain protein, fat and minerals, including copper, sulfur, iron, magnesium, and especially potassium. Bedouin Arabs, who eat them on a regular basis, show an extremely low incidence of cancer and heart disease.

Besides being eaten out of hand or stuffed for hors d’oeuvres, chopped dates are used in breakfast cereals, in puddings, breads, cakes, cookies, ice creams,and candy bars.

Mash pitted dates with softened butter and panko and spread on halibut filets as a protective crust that holds in moisture. Our markets also carry date spreads and pastes, date sugar, jams, jelly, and juice.

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The finer you chop the nuts and the dates for this loaf, the nicer the texture and richer the flavor will be.

Medjool Date Nut Loaf

Makes 1 loaf

1 cup pitted, finely chopped medjool dates

½ cup chopped walnuts

¾ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large egg

1½ cups whole milk

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

3½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon sea salt

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch baking dish. Chop the dates and nuts.

Mix sugar, canola oil and egg thoroughly. Add the milk and stir. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the liquid mixture and stir thoroughly. Add the nuts and dates. Pour the mixture into the baking dish and let stand for 20 minutes, then place in the oven for about an hour, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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