I love dates; I eat them practically every day, but I think many folks don't seek out some of the more exciting varieties. I most often see dates eaten out of the hand or blended with ice cream, but they are highly versatile, offering a complex sweetness from which many dishes can benefit.

Of the foods people consume regularly, the date is one of the most ancient. It thrives in subtropical regions — the Middle East, North Africa, Southern California, parts of Asia — where the tree's beautiful palms provide much-needed shade.

Dates are sweet and soothing. They are good sources of niacin (B complex), iron, and potassium. They are also high in natural sugars, which makes them a good snack for busy days, arduous hikes, and long trips. Dates should be consumed in moderation by anyone struggling with high blood sugar, respiratory infections, or damp conditions (such as a yeast overgrowth or a sinus infection).

Fresh dates are classified by their degree of dehydration. I've tried to simplify the categories for cooking; they range greatly in moisture content but only slightly in flavor:

  • Moist (for purées, batters, drinks, stuffing, and snacks): brown Barhi, medjool
  • Soft (for all uses): yellow Barhi, Khadrawy, Amber
  • Dry (for garnishes, relishes and chutneys, pies, and salads): Deglet

Refrigerating dates prevents fermentation and eases the work of chopping, so that's how I store them. Here are a few serving ideas (in addition to the recipe below) and techniques:

  • Black coffee: a plate of dates and almonds (This is my breakfast many days of the year.)
  • Brown Barhis or medjools mashed and spread on warm buttered toast
  • Brown Barhis or medjools mashed with almond butter, argan oil, and honey, then spread on warm buttered toast
  • Ambers or Deglets diced as a garnish for porridge, rice pudding, or sweet polenta. Specifically, with oatmeal cooked in water with a good pinch of salt then left to rest for 10 minutes; topped with a spoonful of tahini, a spoonful of honey, several chopped dates, and toasted sesame seeds.

Cashew Milk With Fresh Dates, Banana + Oats

Photo credit: Rick Poon

This thick, sweet drink invokes a childlike spirit. Think: slurping sounds, liquid mustaches, and sitting cross-legged on the kitchen countertop. It provides the simple joy of a milkshake with none of the sugar and cream.

Makes 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup raw cashews, soaked overnight in water
  • 3 cups filtered or spring water, cold
  • 2 tablespoons rolled oats
  • 9 medjool dates, pitted
  • 2 frozen bananas
  • Scant pinch of fine sea salt

Preparation

1. Drain the cashews and add them to a high-speed blender; add the water. Blitz for a full minute or until the nuts are pureed. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until thoroughly combined; thin with a tablespoon or two of cold water, if desired.

2. This beverage keeps for a day without any loss in flavor; simply refrigerate it in a sealed container (the blender works), and shake well before serving.


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