Winter Ingredient Focus: California Dates

Date Palms Pre-Harvest | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

Date Palms Pre-Harvest | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

Winter presents challenges with customers, procurement, and menu originality. Sure, warm, comforting dishes are a standby, but how else can an establishment add an ingredient to completely change flavor profiles and add interest? Look no further than the California date. Delicious, complex, sweet, and in season. This underutilized fruit is a sweet flavor bomb that is begging to be used in a multitude of applications.

California Native

While date palms growing in the California desert 125 miles East of Los Angeles supply nearly 100 percent of the dates grown domestically, they were not native. Far from it, in fact dates were rather important to Mesopotamians, as the fruit producing trees produce quite well in desert conditions. Spanish missionaries brought the date to the Coachella Valley, where the business is thriving, and employing over 2000 people steadily throughout the year. Grown in a region where average temperatures are in the triple digits for most of the summer, it is no surprise that this tough, leathery looking fruit can withstand a variety of techniques and pairings in the kitchen, as well as seemingly indefinitely in the refrigerator making for a nearly zero-waste ingredient. There are different varieties of dates, but the main varieties coming out of California are the Deglet Noor and the Medjool. Both are allowed to ripen on the trees to attain an ultra sweet, soft interior. Think of it as nature’s caramel, but with more possibilities.

Starters

Dates offer a complex sweetness that pairs well with spices, dairy, salt, as well as sweet applications. Traditional dishes made with dates may be great if they don’t seem out of place for the concept, but a tagine dish, for example, may not work. Time to get creative with dates in a way that doesn’t involve wrapping them in bacon, despite how delicious that combo is. Learn from the dynamic that is the stuffed-bacon-wrapped date. Juniper and Ivy in San Diego creates richness in medjool dates by grilling them over petrified wood and stuffing them with blue cheese. Cheese boards can be instantly updated for winter with the addition of dates and perhaps another cold weather fruit. Dates pair well with a variety of cheeses including a good bleu cheese, a tangy chevre, or even a nutty semi-hard cow’s milk cheese.

Stuffed Dates | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

Stuffed Dates | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

Small bites on the menu can take this lead. Dates, when halved are lovely and lend themselves to being filled or simply stuffed when left whole. Some goat cheese piped onto the date and topped with toasted pine nuts and some smoky salt for instance, would make for a delicious starter. There is substance in the bite of a date that makes it a satisfying and desirable treat. Salads can be updated with the addition of dates, and when they are combined with radicchio or another crisp, bitter green, their sweetness and bite offer a welcome combination. Suzanne Goin of Lucques in West Hollywood is no stranger to the use of dates on the menu. Currently, they are roasted and featured in a warm kabocha squash salad with prosciutto, dandelion, and parmesan pudding.

Mains

Dates lend themselves to a deeper level of flavor for many dishes. Winter up those braised dishes by adding some deep sweet to your braising liquid. The beautiful things about dates is that the texture holds up to a long braise, imparting a complexity to the braising liquid. Provided the dates aren’t used with a heavy hand in this application, the sweetness won’t overwhelm. Interest can be added to a pan sauce with a handful of brunoise dates added after deglazing. Soups, stews – prunes and figs are used in these, why not dates? Resist the urge to think guests consider dates a larger raisin and will be put off by them. Instead, enlighten guests by accompanying sought after dishes with some dates in the mix.

Overcoming the Texture

Guests with textural issues may shy away from dates if they haven’t really explored the possibilities. Making date syrup is a potential option if the flavor and deep honey-like complexity are what is desired. A commercial blender, some hot water, and a small squeeze of lemon will create syrup that is easily squeezed into anything, from cocktails to desserts. Date syrups are an amazing addition when plating tarts or other winter pastries. Chef Kathleen Robles embraces the seasonality of local products and will utilize dates in a toffee date cake offered as guest ring in the New Year at Starlite in San Diego. Date purees and syrups can be a pastry chef’s best friend when looking for a deep, flavorful sweet, and can be indispensable when creating healthier or gluten-free treats.

Consider an adult approach to the date milkshake. Add an alcoholic beverage that complements the frozen treat that has had a cult following in Southern California since the late 1920’s. Places like Ruby’s Shake Shack in Laguna Beach, CA and Hadley’s Fruit Orchard, just west of Palm Springs, are serving up huge quantities of these deliciously sweet concoctions. Typically, the puree is not perfectly smooth in the date shake, but smooth enough to not require a boba straw. A splash of quality bourbon, aged rum, or even a coffee stout seems like the perfect antidote for indulgent guests who may find the shake too sweet.