Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dessert in the desert

I have never met anyone who doesn't like dates. There are people out there who claim not to like chocolate, or cheesecake, or even peanut-butter cookies, but dates? They're universally irresistible. With their moist yet chewy consistency, satisfying level of sticky, and a straight-up sugar shot that even Hershey can't rival. There's no competition when it comes to dates.

Not even our first ancestors could resist the sweet temptation of dates. In Islamic tradition the date palm was the original tree that Adam and Eve ate of, not the apple. Mary supposedly was given shelther in a date oasis, providing baby Jesus with his first taste of sugar while in-utero.

Dates are even good for you. They are high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and have more potassium per ounce than a banana (100 mg vs 195 mg). Dates also contain smaller amounts of iron, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. They contain on average 23 calories each, although larger varieties such as medjools can have around 60 (how do they measure calories anyway?)

When used as a sweetener, dates are an awesome choice. One ounce of so-called "healthy choice" brown sugar contains a third more calories than dates and half the essential minerals and vitamins, as well as supplying NO fiber or protein. Why should we ingest calories that provide nothing useful to the body when there is something just as tasty that's a fruit?

Sound too good to be true? It kind of is. Dates grow in the middle of the desert, like this one in the Indio area of California. It's a three hour drive from Los Angeles that includes advisory warnings to turnoff your air conditioning to avoid overheating. Turning the AC off in the middle of a 110 degree fahrenheit desert seemed to me to go against logic, but that's car mechanics for you.

Indio is still one Southern California's most important agricultural area and at one time provided nearly all the dates commercially sold in the United States. Growing industrial and residential areas have restricted Even today, if you are in the US and are eating a date, chances are that it was grown in Indio.

Mom, my sis and I visited Shields Date farm, one of the oldest date groves left unscathed by development. Located across the street from the suburban desert sprawl and an outdoor shopping mall, the tiny oasis and its towering wooden knight seemed out of place.But I am so glad Shields has not succumbed to urban development! I had no idea there were so many kinds of dates - including two varieties developed by and exclusively grown by Floyd Shields. The store had samples set out for at least 20 different dates, and I tried them all! We all left the shop feeling a little giddy from our sugar high. I tried to bring home a few different varieties for Rob to try, but of course I couldn't bring home them all! Of the kinds we tried, here is our opinion:

Abbada: a dark, nearly blue-black date, the abbada is longer and dryer than most dates, meaning that you get less date for each pit. I liked its mild sweetness, plus its fun to have more than one color of date to choose from!

Honey date: My mom's favorite pick. The honey date is small and gushy inside with a really creamy sweetness. I liked it, but thought it was like small bahri.

Bahri: One of my favorites, bahris are large soft dates but a little drier than medjools and with a flavor like caramel candy. Not quite as rich as medjools maybe, but I think I like them better. They also have inverted sugar which Shields claim can be useful for diabetics and people with sugar sensitivities. Inverted sugar takes longer for the body to process than other sugars.

Khadrawi: I ultimately purchased 5 pounds of khadrawi dates because I liked them so much and I thought they would be the best for making desserts. Khadrawi is said to be good for diabetics because they contain the highest amount of inverted sugars.

Blonde: My favorite, this variety was developed by Floyd Shields and so is only grown by Shields Date garden. It is a golden color with a creamy inside and a slight crystal crunch. I highly recommend trying to get a hold of some if you are ever in the Indio area!

We also tried Shield's Brunettes, four different kinds of medjools (royal, soft, sweet, petite - who knew!?), Halawis, Zahidis, deglet noors, and a bunch of others I can't remember. I love dates!

We stopped by Hadley's date farm as well because my mom remembered it from when she was a little girl. But it. was. lame. It was a giant pre-packaged Trader-Joe's-esque retail shop with only two varieties of dates and no samples. So if you're driving out into the California desert to find some dates, don't stop at Hadley's. Find Shields and try so many different kinds of dates you feel kinda funny after. And you can actually see the date palms themselves growing behind the store. Now if only they didn't need so much water from the Colorado River....

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