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IDIOT’S GUIDE: Dates

The sweet jewel of North Africa, today, the date appeals to international taste buds. It is in fact the oldest cultivated fruit in the world, said to be a diet staple in arid, desert lands since around 6000 BCE. Date palms are not limited to oases of the Maghrib, but are found across the sun-drenched belt from the Canary Islands to the Middle East and even India and Pakistan. There are actually thousands of varieties of this dried fruit, but here’s a guide to four of the most popular and easiest to find in the U.S:

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Medjool: “The fruit of kings,” the Medjool date has a royal history, with a taste and texture exuding luxury. One of the largest, plumpest varieties, this date is soft, sticky, and fleshy. It’s rich like honey and sweet as brown sugar, slighting reminiscent of caramel and cinnamon. California is the top global producer of this premium date, but Israel also prominently exports the variety. This indulgent date is the perfect size for stuffing, harmonizing well with the mild saltiness of goat cheese.

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Deglet Nour: This date is characterized by its shiny skin, amber tone, and nutty flavor. It’s semi-dry, slightly wrinkled, and ranges from light to dark color. Often called the “date of light” because of its translucence, deglet noor is conveniently available as they’re produced year-round and conserve well. Tunisia and Algeria combine to produce 90% of the world’s exports of this fruit, though the U.S. and Israel also have important places in the market. This variety is Europe’s traditional favorite. It’s also closely related to the halawi date, which is known for its intensely caramel taste.

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Zahidi: This is a delicate but not overly sweet date. Belonging to an umbrella variety of “common dates,” the Zahidi is known as the “golden date” for its lovely shade. While soft when harvested, if not fastidiously preserved or quickly consumed, the Zahidi will become semi-dry. Its flavor is less intense than some other mainstream varieties. This date is a pleasure eaten alone or savored with mixed nuts.

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Amari: With high fiber and sugar contents, this oblong date will delight diverse palates. Typified by its reddish brown color, this date is eaten dried and wrinkled. Most often associated with Egypt, the Amari is however gaining a following among date lovers worldwide. Because of its coarser than average exterior, the Amari can be cut up without difficulty, making it perfect for incorporating into baked goods such as scones.

Though a very satisfactory dessert, the date is lauded as a filling and nutritional snack for its high fiber content, healthy carbohydrates, and copper, magnesium, and potassium galore. Dates are also plentiful in polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants. You just can’t go wrong with this delectable fruit.

Uses and recipes for dates cover a broad spectrum. In Israel, you’ll find them in Charoset chopped with apples and soaked in Manischewitz. Indians often crush them into savory or sweet chutneys. Tagines in Morocco will feature dates slow-cooked with braised chicken and almonds. Spanish tapas may include dates wrapped in bacon. And in France, bakers whip up whole wheat bread loaves chock full of nuts, seeds, and chopped dates.

Tempted yet? Discover dates at your local grocer, as they’re becoming part of typical offerings in many supermarkets, alongside other dried fruits. They’ll undoubtedly be at organic and Middle Eastern markets, and are frequently payable by weight. Finally, for true date-filled extravagance, enjoy a Persian take on cooking with dates at LalaRokh in Beacon Hill. Here the Addas Pollo or vegetarian Addas dish features soft dates combined with feathery rice, warm lentils, caramelized onions, and currants. Now that’s a date with heaven.

– Jenny White 

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