Eric Akis: Make a date with a sweet delight

Medjool dates offer nutritious alternative to sugar-rich foods, and they're a cinch to stuff

Eric Akis

Some call medjool dates the “diamond of dates,” and for millennia people have certainly treated them as if they have 24-carat qualities.

Evidence suggests that this variety of date, the fruit of a palm tree, was first cultivated and consumed by ancient cultures in the Middle East. People around the world now enjoy them and they've long been popular because of their large size, plump, meaty flesh, rich, decadent, caramel-like flavour and toothsome texture.

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Beyond those fine qualities, what also initially made medjool dates appealing was because they were harder to grow than other varieties. That, in turn, made them a scarcer commodity and a highly coveted food that in the past, in places such as Morocco, were exclusively eaten by royalty and reserved for celebrations.

Medjool dates became really rare around the turn of the 20th century when a disease starting killing palm trees in Morocco, and eventually only one medjool producing oasis remained.

According to a seller of medjool dates, Atlas Produce (atlasproduce.com), American horticulturist Walter Swingle helped to turn things around. In 1927 he rescued nine offshoots from Moroccan palm trees that were threatened by disease.

Swingle brought them to California’s Coachella Valley and planted them. The area’s hot, dry climate proved to be perfect for growing medjool and other dates. Today, 75 per cent of dates grown in the United States come from the Coachella Valley.

Dates now also come from other parts of California and in 2015, 10,000 acres were planted with palm trees yielding them. Other states, such as Arizona and Nevada, also grow dates.

Dates, of course, are still grown in the Middle East and Egypt leads the world in production, followed by places such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.

Beyond their fine flavour and texture, medjool dates also contain nutritious things. According to livestrong.com, they provide fibre, with one date containing about six per cent of one’s daily requirement. Medjool dates also contain vitamin B-6 and several minerals, such as potassium and manganese.

A large medjool date has only about 66 calories, but it also contains a good amount of natural fruit sugar. If you desire something sweet that also provides a boost of energy, a medjool date a good candidate for snacking on when trying to limit your intake of granulated-sugar-rich foods, such as cookies.

Sweet medjool dates can also complement savoury, sharp, spicy and/or full-flavoured foods, such as cheese and charcuterie. That’s why I often include them on boards containing those items.

Because medjool dates are easy to pit, they are also perfect for stuffing with sweet or savoury things, as I did in today’s recipes. One sees medjool dates stuffed with walnuts and tangy Gorgonzola cheese, before being wrapped in prosciutto and baked. The other sees the date stuffed with pistachio- and orange-flavoured almond paste before being dipped in chocolate. One or two of these stuffed dates will be bring an appetizing start, or sweet end, to a meal.

 

Gorgonzola and Walnut-stuffed Dates With Prosciutto

Sweet dates, nuts, tangy cheese and silky, salty prosciutto combine in these appetizing bites. One or two of these rich and wonderful stuffed dates will bring a very appetizing start to a meal. They could also be included in a tapas or antipasto-style meal, where an array of bite-sized appetizers will be served.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Makes: 12 stuffed dates

12 medjool dates

12 walnut halves

125 grams Gorgonzola cheese

6 paper-thin slices of prosciutto, each halved lengthwise

12 small rosemary sprigs (optional)

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Make a lengthwise slit down the centre of each date. Squeeze the dates open and remove the pits.

Stuff a walnut half in each date. Now set a teaspoon-sized nugget of Gorgonzola cheese in each date, pressing it in.

Gently squeeze the date to hold the filling in place. Wrap a half slice of prosciutto around each date, and then set on the baking pan. If desired, insert a small rosemary sprig into the centre of each date, using the tip of paring knife to create a slit to insert it (see Eric's options). Bake the dates in 375 F oven 10 minutes, or until warm in the centre.

Eric’s options: You can get the dates oven-ready many hours before needed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

 

Chocolate-Dipped Dates stuffed Almonds and  Pistachios

End a fine meal by serving these sweet and splendid stuffed dates with a rich cup of coffee or tea, or perhaps a glass of ice wine or late-harvest Riesling.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: a few minutes

Makes: 12 stuffed dates

150 grams almond paste (see Note 1)

1 tsp finely grated orange zest

2 Tbsp unsalted, shelled pistachios, finely chopped (divided; see Note 2)

12 medjool dates

125 grams milk, semi-sweet or dark chocolate, coarsely chopped (divided)

Make a lengthwise slit down the centre of each date. Squeeze the dates open and remove the pits.

Knead the almond paste in a bowl to soften it. Now mix and knead in the orange zest and half of the chopped pistachios into the almond paste.

Roll the almond paste into a 1-inch thick log. Cut that log into 12 equal pieces. Now shape each piece into an oblong ball. Stuff a ball into the centre of each date. Gently squeeze the dates shut, leaving some of the marzipan still exposed.

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Place all but 1 Tbsp of the chopped chocolate in a small bowl and set over simmering water. Heat and stir the chocolate until melted. Remove bowl from the heat and mix in the remaining 1 Tbsp chopped chocolate and stir until it's melted. (Adding the chocolate in stages will ensure it maintains its temper and be shiny when set).

Dip one of the stuffed dates halfway into the chocolate. Let the excess chocolate drip away, and then set date the baking sheet, stuffed side up. Repeat with remaining dates. Sprinkle the dipped side of each date with some of the remaining chopped pistachios. Refrigerate the dates to set the chocolate. Transfer dates to an airtight container and store at cool room temperature until ready to serve. The stuffed dates can be made many hours before needed.

Note 1: Almond paste is sold in tubes or tubs in the baking aisle or bakery section of many supermarkets.

Note 2: Shelled pistachios are sold in the bulk-foods section of some supermarkets and at bulk food stores. If you can’t find them, shell 1/4 cup of in-the-shell pistachios to get the amount required here.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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