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Monday, October 25

Gapers Block

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The great thing about living in a neighborhood with a prevailing ethnic presence, is that you end up finding different food items than you're probably used to using or seeing. For example, how many times have seen a bunch of fresh dates at Jewel or Dominick's? I never have. (I do admit I rarely enter large grocery stores anymore, so I could be the only one who hasn't seen this.)

On the flip side, it's not unheard of to see an entire lamb's head that has been skinned with the eyes intact, sitting right next to the chicken and beef in the butcher's counter. So you take the dates and skim the meat counter if you're squeamish, like me.

So I was delighted, and surprised to see several different varieties of dried and fresh dates at a local produce store. Two pounds of dried dates for $6, or one pound of dried organic dates for about the same price. Or you could get a branch of fresh California dates that are yellow. They're all delightfully sweet and well worth the investment in time (to remove the stubborn pit) and money.

But I have to admit that I've not really done much with dates. I've chopped them up and used them in cookies instead of raisins. And I've stuffed some goat cheese between two halves of a date, wrapped it in bacon, and baked it to serve as an appetizer. But I didn't quite know what to do with the bounty of fresh and dried dates. Now I do.

The good thing about the dried dates is that you can chop them up so they're raisin-sized and add them to any recipe that calls for raisins. The caramel-like, nutty flavor is less likely to throw people off than raisins, and the texture is less squishy than raisins tend to be. So if you've got some zucchini you're turning into zucchini bread, throw in some dates and see how well the flavors match up.

You can also chop them up and sprinkle them on cereal, mix them in yogurt, or even place them on top of a celery stick with peanut butter on it, for a fancier version of "ants on a log."

There are actually four different types of dates. Green dates that are unripe, dates that are ripe and crunchy, dates that are ripe and soft, and dates that are ripe and dried. Since dates don't stay good very long, you're most likely to find dates that are ripe and soft, or at least softening. Fresh dates aren't as overpoweringly sweet as the dried versions are. The best part of ripe and soft dates is that they're easier to remove the pit from. Cut half of the date lengthwise and pry out the pit with your fingertips.

But if you're looking for something that really shows off the dates, here are a few ideas. Brown rice salad with fresh dates and citrus dressing, Chicken Breast in Date and Balsamic Marinade, Chorizo Stuffed Dates, and Chocolate Dipped Mascarpone Stuffed Dates.

Brown Rice Salad with Dates
1 1/2 cups of brown rice
2 1/2 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 green onions (green part only, or you can use 1 small bundle of chives)
1/2 cup of fresh dates, chopped (about 6 dates)
1/2 of a red or yellow pepper, chopped
1 stalk of celery, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup of toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon of salt
pinch of ground black pepper
juice from two oranges
3 tablespoons of grapeseed or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon of dark sesame oil
2 tablespoons of brandy
juice from 1 lemon
zest from 1/2 of an orange

Place the brown rice and the water in your rice cooker and turn it on. If you don't have a rice cooker, follow these directions for cooking brown rice. Once the rice cooks, remove the lid, fluff, and let it cool. While the rice cooks, chop your dates, onions, pepper, carrot and celery. Place the sesame seeds in a small skillet and place it over medium heat. Shake the skillet every 30 seconds. Once they start to turn brown watch them very carefully, shaking constantly, and remove them from the skillet right away once they seem lightly brown on all sides.

Place the minced garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl. Use the back of a stainless steel spoon to mash the garlic into a paste. The stainless spoon will take out the sharp bitterness from the garlic. Pour in the orange juice and whisk while pouring in the oils, then the brandy, then the lemon juice and orange zest. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired.

Place the rice and vegetables in a serving bowl. Pour the dressing over the rice and toss with your hands till the rice is evenly coated. Cover and let sit on your counter or in the refrigerator for an hour before serving. Stir one more time before serving.
Serves 6-8 as a side dish.

Date and Balsamic Marinated Chicken Breast
1 cup of dried dates (about 12)
1/2 cup of honey
1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of hungarian paprika
4 chicken breasts with the skin removed
1 cup of flour
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil

Remove the pits from the dates and finely chop them. Place them in a bowl with all of the other ingredients except the chicken and olive oil. Place this in the microwave and cook it in 20 second increments while stirring until the honey and vinegar can be easily combined. Pat the chicken breasts dry and place them in the marinade. Cover it and let it sit for 30-60 minutes. Remove each breast from the marinade and shake to remove the excess marinade. Place a skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken to the skillet so the pieces don't touch. Let it cook on the first side for about 3 minutes. Turn and let the chicken cook on the second side for that long. Reduce the heat to medium and let the chicken cook until the center has just turned from pink. Remove the breasts from the pan and let it sit for a few minutes. Pour the remaining marinade into the skillet and let it come to a boil before pouring it over the breasts.
Makes 4 servings.

Chorizo Stuffed Dates
1 pound of dried dates
1 chorizo link (or even Soyrizo)

Preheat your oven to 400° F. Cut down one side of the date lengthwise and pry out the date pit. Cut a chunk of the sausage and wrap the date around it. Place a toothpick in each date to keep it closed and make it easier to serve, and bake them for about 8-10 minutes. Serve immediately.

If you prefer, you can place these on a skewer and grill them over direct heat for 8-10 minutes. Just keep the dates from touching on the skewer so they cook evenly.

Chocolate Dipped, Mascarpone Stuffed Dates
1 pound of dried dates
1/4 pound of mascarpone cheese
1 cup of dark chocolate chips

Cut each date lengthwise and pry out the pits. Stuff each date with a grape-sized ball of mascarpone cheese. Place the chocolate chips in a glass bowl and melt it slowly in the microwave, stirring between each 15-second cycle. Once the chocolate has melted completely, spear a date with a toothpick and dip it completely in the chocolate. Place it on a sheet of wax paper to cool and harden.

The possibilities seem endless, actually. Puree dates to turn into a sweet salad dressing when mixed with oil, vinegar, salt and a little prepared mustard; sprinkle them with mild cheese across a flour tortilla to turn into a gourmet quesadilla; combine with chipotle and tomatoes to make a sweet and smoky salsa; sprinkle chopped dates on spinach leaves with bleu cheese and toasted walnuts; or even puree softened dates and pour over a brie before baking. If you've got a favorite date recipe, feel free to add it in the comments.

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Josie / August 26, 2008 9:21 AM

Where do I get these fresh dates? I went to a date plantation in the Indio Valley this spring and did not see fresh dates on offer! I need to know!!!

Cinnamon / August 28, 2008 1:03 AM

I saw them at Fresh Produce on Devon between California and Rockwell. It's the market on the north side of the street that has a huge produce department about 1 block west of Patel Brothers. The fresh dates they had were from California, not India, btw.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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