Dandy dates

In Season

December 05, 2007|By Joe Gray | Joe Gray,Chicago Tribune

The small fruit of the towering date palm tree grows in large bunches of more than 20 pounds, with up to 1,000 dates per bunch.

According to The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, dates are originally from North Africa and the Middle East, but most dates sold in the United States are grown in California, where they flourish in very hot, desert conditions.

The fruit is 1 to 2 inches long, thin-skinned, with a soft, yielding, very sweet flesh wrapped around a long, narrow pit. Dates have a high sugar content, making them a good source of energy with no fat. They also provide some fiber, protein and vitamin A, and a good bit of potassium. An ounce, or about 3 large dates, is 86 calories.

Dates come in many varieties, but medjool and Deglet Noor make up most of the California crop.

Joe Gray writes for the Chicago Tribune.

PEPPER-CRUSTED BEEF CARPACCIO WITH DATES, FRISEE AND DATE VINAIGRETTE

SERVES 4

3 / 4 pound beef filet

1 / 4 cup coarse black pepper

1 / 8 cup pink peppercorn flakes

1 / 2 cup dates

2 heads frisee

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Coat beef with peppers and sear off in medium-to-hot pan. Place beef in freezer for 8 hours. Remove pits from dates and julienne. Clean and pick frisee, using only yellow center leaves.

When ready to prepare a plate, slice beef on a slicer very thin. Place on a plate, layering each slice.

In a separate bowl, toss frisee, dates and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and place in the center of the plate. Drizzle a tablespoon of the date vinaigrette around the edge of the plate.

Per serving: 260 calories, 19 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 42 milligrams sodium

DATE VINAIGRETTE

MAKES ABOUT 1 / 2 CUP

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 / 4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 / 8 cup plus 1 tablespoon date puree

1 tablespoon honey

salt and pepper to taste

Put sherry vinegar in a bowl and whisk in olive oil to combine, then whisk in other ingredients.

Courtesy of the California Date Commission

Per tablespoon: 95 calories, 0 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

BUYING

Fresh medjools are best purchased from mid-September to January or February, said Pam Leja of Leja Farms in Coachella, Calif. Deglet Noors come in later, from mid-October through March or April. Whole dates are sold loose in bulk or packaged, with and without pits.

Look for plump, soft fruit with glossy skin. Avoid those with sugar crystals on the skin or cracked skin, says Leja. Dates also are sold chopped in packages, ready for adding to recipes.

STORING

Dates should be refrigerated, where they will have a long shelf life. Medjools will keep three to five years, Leja said.

COOKING

From now through the end of the year, dates get a major workout in holiday cakes, cookies, candies and other sweet delights. Many cooks turn to them for savory recipes, including stuffing, breads and appetizers. A simple hors d'oeuvre involves stuffing pitted dates with cream cheese.

Dean Frangopoulos, then executive chef for Random House in New York City, won a first-place appetizer award from the California Date Commission two years ago for this beef-carpaccio recipe with dates and date vinaigrette.

[Joe Gray and Kate Shatzkin]

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