WHY DID the fig ask the raisin out? Because he couldn’t get a date.
That joke featured on a Valentine’s Day card I received in elementary school and, oddly, never forgot. But I don’t think I entirely got the joke until recently, when I tasted a Barhi date. It was soft and lusciously sweet, more like a caramel than a piece of fruit. No wonder the fig in the joke thought he was settling.
The fruit of the date palm is eaten fresh, semi-dried and dried. In the Middle East, ancient nomads relied on it as a highly portable source of concentrated flavor and nutrients (potassium and magnesium, among others). Today, hosts offer a platter of dates, with small cups of Arabic coffee, to welcome guests in homes, offices, even gyms. Varieties number in the dozens, from the small, chewy Ajwa to the cone-shaped Sukkari, also known as the Royal Date.
Make a sophisticated salad. Toss chopped celery and celery leaves with dates and shaved Parmesan; dress with lemony vinaigrette.
Replace those raisins. Add dates to scones, quick breads and muffins.
Sweeten your smoothie. Blend milk (or almond milk) with dates, bananas, peaches and a pinch of cardamom.
In the U.S., unless you live in Southern California and can find them at a farmers’ market, only two types are widely available in grocery stores: semi-soft, slightly dry Deglets and oblong, candy-sweet Medjools. Colleen Sundlie, founder of Date Lady, a purveyor of fresh Barhi dates as well as date syrups and sauces, called this dearth of date varieties the (sad) equivalent of selling only Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples.
You can find high-quality dates (see “Where to Buy,” below), and when you do, stock up: This fruit freezes beautifully. Date Lady’s Barhi dates have replaced chocolate as my afternoon pick-me-up. Dates also play well with savory foods, such as bacon and prosciutto, rich cheeses and, surprisingly, celery. And in baking, dates offer a step up—as the old joke goes—from the humdrum raisin.
WHERE TO BUY
Date Lady’s Barhi dates are available at many natural grocers or through the company’s website ($9 for an 8-ounce bag, ilovedatelady.com). Rancho Meladuco grows Medjool dates on its Southern California farm and ships them fresh ($20 for a 2-pound box of organic Medjools, ranchomeladuco.com).
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