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Whether sweet, salty or savory, it's a date: 3 recipes that make use of this underappreciated fruit

Upside-down date and orange cake. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Upside-down date and orange cake. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Find more stories like this one on our podcast, Here & Now Anytime.

When you ask Joan Smith, owner of Rancho Meladuco in Mecca, California, about dates, you’re met with an onslaught of adjectives: “Meaty. Soft. Delicate. Buttery. Complex. Rich. Dense. Chewy. Boozy. Caramel-like. Maple. Cinnamon-raisin-y.”

Smith has been growing dates for about seven years on her 200-acre ranch in the Coachella Valley, the same area that’s home to the famed music festival. If you’ve ever picked up a packet of dried dates in your local grocery store, you may not be sure what all the fuss is about. Those shriveled brown dried fruit? I was never a huge date fan until I tasted the freshness, and “meatiness,” of Rancho Meladuco’s dates. Smith is spot on: Dates are chewy and dense. But they also have an unexpected creaminess that makes them ideal to use raw or cooked in everything from smoothies to soups, salads, pizza toppings, sauces and baked goods. I started cooking with dates and fell in love.

Dates grow in clusters (like grapes) on date palms, which are native to the Middle East. They are considered a sweet stone fruit. There are more than 200 varieties of dates grown in the U.S., but the most common are Medjools, a large, plump, meaty variety. Also look for Delget Noor, a less sweet, nutty-flavored date, which is often sold pitted and chopped, and used for baking. Honey dates have a molasses-like flavor, and Khadrawy (pronounced  ‘ká-draw-ee) have a dry exterior and a smooth texture with a brown sugar essence.

In terms of health, dates have a high sugar content. The sugar intensifies as the dates dry and moisture evaporates. Many consider dates a superfood: nutrient-rich, high in antioxidants and fiber. Six dates contain around 250 calories. When shopping for dried dates, look for fruit that is slightly translucent and not clumped together or mashed.

According to Joan Smith, because of the high sugar and low moisture content in dates, they can be frozen for several years. Yes, years!

These three recipes show off some of the possibilities of using dates, both raw and cooked. A gorgeous wedge salad with blue cheese, dates and crispy prosciutto. A roasted carrot and date dish (which works well as a vegetarian main course or side dish) topped with a date vinaigrette and pistachios. And finally, an upside-down date-orange cake that is simple to make and very impressive.

All these recipes were tested with  Medjool dates. Click here for more information and to mail order Rancho Meladuco dates.

Wedge salad with sauteed dates, blue cheese dressing and crispy prosciutto. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Wedge salad with sauteed dates, blue cheese dressing and crispy prosciutto

This is a riff on the classic wedge salad with blue cheese. Here, dates are split open, pitted and gently sauteed in olive oil. A blue cheese dressing is made by blending the cheese with olive oil, lemon juice, milk and mayonnaise. A wedge of iceberg is coated in the dressing, topped with the sauteed dates and if you like, thin strips of sauteed, crispy prosciutto. It’s a luscious combination of crisp, sweet and earthy. When you saute the dates, the natural sugars emerge and they taste like candy.

Serves 4.

Ingredients

The blue cheese dressing:

  • ¼ cup blue cheese, crumbled
  • ⅓ cup buttermilk (or ⅓ cup milk plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
  • 3 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 ½ tablespoons lemon juice or Meyer lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons mayonnaise
  • Hot sauce (to taste)
  • Salt and pepper


The dates and prosciutto:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 12 dates, cut in half and pitted
  • 3 to 4 very thin slices prosciutto, cut into small strips, optional
  • 1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 wedges


Instructions

  1. Make the dressing: In a food processor or blender, blend the blue cheese, buttermilk, oil, lemon, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Can be made, covered and refrigerated, a day ahead of time.
  2. Prepare the dates: In a medium skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add the dates and cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, flipping them from side to side. Be careful not to let them burn. Remove with a slotted spoon onto paper towels. Add the prosciutto to the hot skillet, if using, and cook, stirring over moderate heat for 3 to 5 minutes, or until crisp. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
  3. Arrange the wedges on 4 plates or one large serving platter. Spoon some of the dressing on top and sprinkle with the date and prosciutto. Serve any remaining dressing on the side.

Roast carrots and dates with a date-orange-mint vinaigrette and pistachios. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Roast carrots and dates with a date-orange-mint vinaigrette and pistachios

Dates are used in two ways in this gorgeous vegetable dish; They are roasted with the carrots and also chopped raw to add flavor to an orange and mint-flavored vinaigrette. The dish is topped off with crunchy salty pistachios. You can also serve this dish with a dollop of Greek yogurt, sour cream or labne. Serve as a first course, side dish or main course with crusty bread.

Serves 4.

Ingredients

The carrots:

  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and left whole if thin and young, or halved or quartered lengthwise if thick and fat
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 dates, pitted and cut into thin slivers, about ½ cup


The vinaigrette and pistachios:

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ⅓ cup coarsely chopped salted pistachios, almonds, walnuts or your favorite nut


Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the peeled carrots in a medium ovenproof skillet or on a sheet pan and coat with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes. Add the slivered dates, stirring well to coat with the oil, salt and pepper and roast for another 5 minutes, or until the carrots are just tender when tested with a small, sharp knife. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette: Mix the herbs, coarsely chopped dates, orange juice, oil, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.
  3. Transfer the carrots and roasted dates to a serving plate. Spoon the vinaigrette over the top and sprinkle with the pistachios. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Upside-down date and orange cake

Upside-down date and orange cake. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Sometimes the world just feels inside out and upside down and we need a new way of looking at things. That’s the idea behind this fabulous upside-down date and orange cake. Creamy dates form the base (which, when flipped, becomes the topping) for this chewy, sweet, crunchy cake. A quick sugar coating is formed in a skillet, topped with date slices and then an orange cake batter is placed on top. The cake bakes, cools for a few minutes, is flipped over, and you have a gorgeous date upside-down cake. I know I throw the word “simple” around a lot when it comes to my recipes but in this case, it applies; A truly sophisticated cake is made in about an hour. It goes equally well with coffee and tea, dessert, or breakfast.

Serves 6 to 8.

Ingredients

The date topping:

  • ½ stick unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup light brown sugar
  • 10 ounces dates, pitted and cut in quarters


The orange cake:

  • 1¾ cup all-purpose flour (210 grams)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch fine salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup fresh orange juice (from about 1 to 2 oranges)
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest (from the juice oranges, zest before juicing)


Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a 10-inch heavy ovenproof skillet (cast iron is ideal) melt the butter over low heat. Increase the heat to medium, stir in the brown sugar and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring, until the mixture is bubbling. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 3 minutes.
  3. Carefully arrange the dates on top of the brown sugar mixture, in circles working from the outside in. The dates can overlap slightly but you want to try to create a flat layer. Set aside.
  4. Make the cake batter: In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt.
  5. In a stand mixer or using a handheld beater, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and light, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is fully incorporated before adding the next, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Mix in the vanilla. Add half the flour mixture and beat on low speed until incorporated. Add the orange juice and orange zest, mixing until just combined.
  6. Pour the batter into the skillet over the dates and carefully spread it evenly with a rubber spatula.
  7. Bake on the middle shelf until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove and let cool in the skillet for 5 minutes, but not too much longer or it may stick to the skillet. Place a large serving plate or round platter on top of the skillet and very carefully invert the skillet and plate together to flip the cake out onto the plate. Let cool slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature.

Another date recipe

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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