Desert Date Delights

Desert Lil's Delicacies - A DesertUSA Food Feature

The desert date is one of nature's oldest, sweetest and most highly-treasured delicacies. This chewy, gooey, dark fruit has been eaten dried or in a variety of delicious recipes for many centuries. One of the most recent, tastiest and coolest use of dates is the Date Shake, commonly concocted in the date growing regions of Southern California.

Dates in bowl
Dates in bowl

Since ancient times, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) has been cultivated in the irrigable deserts of North Africa and the Middle East as a chief source of food. Archeological records more than 5,000 years old from sites excavated in present-day Iraq refer to the highly prized date as a staple of ancient culture.

Spanish missionaries carried the date palm to the New World in the 18th century and planted date seeds around many of their missions. Palm leaves are used in celebration of Palm Sunday among Christians and for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles among Jews.

A few of these original palms or their offshoot survivors are still found in Southern California and below the Mexican border. But the damp climate of the coast, where most of the early missions were located, was not favorable for date production.

In middle of the 19th century it was discovered that perfect conditions for date cultivation existed in the hot interior valleys of California. Today, the Coachella Valley, south of Interstate 10 in eastern California, is the primary commercial region of date production in the U.S.

Date Tree with dates

Date Tree

There are hundreds of varieties of dates that have been imported to the U.S. since then. The Deglet, the Barhi and the Medjool, called King of the Dates, are the most common. These three varieties are known to give the best and most plentiful fruit, and are thus the most likely to be grown commercially.

Date cultivation is one of the most complex and labor intensive agricultural practices in the world. There are four main stages in the production of Medjool dates: pollination, thinning, bagging and harvest. All require climbing trees as high as 80 feet, numerous times for each stage, in temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees F.

Surprisingly, date palms also require a prodigious amount of water. In spite of its desert origins, the date palm requires as much water as a willow, amounting to about 120 inches of annual rainfall. The amount of work and water required to cultivate dates accounts for their high value in antiquity and their price in today's grocery market.

Date palms begin to bear fruit in 4 to 5 years and reach full bearing age between 10 and 15 years. Dates begin to ripen about the first of September, and from then on until Christmas fruit is picked once a week. More than 1,000 dates may appear on a single bunch weighing as much as 18 pounds; annual yield may be 180 pounds or more.

Dates hanging from tree

Dates hanging from tree

Medjool dates are cured on the tree, because there is no better environment for curing dates than the 110-degree daytime temperatures of the Sonoran Desert. The dried fruit is more than 50 percent sugar by weight and contains about 2 percent each of protein, fat, and mineral matter.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of delightful and tasty date recipes that have been created during the past 50 centuries. Here are just a few of my favorites. Use your own favorite dates in these recipes, from the gooey Medjool to the drier Deglet Noor.

Date Shake It Up, Baby

  • 3/4 cup Medjool dates (diced)
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream

Blend dates and 1/2 cup of milk at high speed until smooth. Add remaining milk and ice cream, blending at low speed until mixed. Serve immediately.

Date Balls o' Fire

  • 1/2 cup dates (chopped)
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup coconut

Combine peanut butter and honey in a pan and heat until melted, Add remaining ingredients and cook 1 minute while stirring. Let cool and roll into balls. Refrigerate for several hours.

Last Date Nutty Muffins

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup chopped dates
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup cold milk
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. oil

Toss flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking powder with a fork to mix. In a separate bowl beat egg and add milk and oil. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir them briefly. Fill greased muffin tin 2/3 full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes at 400 degrees F. Makes 12 large muffins.

Date Rattle & Roll

  • 1 lb dates (chopped and pitted)
  • 1 lb graham crackers (crushed)
  • 1 lb marshmallows (diced)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts (chopped)
  • 1/2 pint half & half
  • 1/4 cup walnuts (chopped fine)
  • whipped cream
  • cherries

Combine first 5 ingredients well, then roll into a log, wrap in wax paper and tie tightly. Refrigerate overnight. To serve, cut into slices, top with whipped cream, cherry and sprinkle with finely chopped walnuts.

Double Date Shrimp Curry

  • 1 cup dates
  • 6 Tbsp. butter or margarine
  • 2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. grated lemon rind
  • 2 lbs fresh deveined shrimp
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 Tbsp. water

Quarter dates crosswise. Melt butter in large skillet. Stir in seasonings and onion. Saute onion 2 or 3 minutes. Add 2 cups water, lemon rind and juice, and shrimp. Bring just to a boil. Cover and reduce heat; simmer 5 to 7 minutes, until shrimp is tender. Blend cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water. Stir into shrimp mixture. Cook until sauce is thickened. Add dates and heat a few minutes. Serve over hot rice or noodles as desired.

Complete Index of Desert Lil's Delicacies




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