Creative Ways To Use Dates

Creative ways to cook with dates.

Growing up, I spent my summers in Israel, where dates were part of the daily diet. These days, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that this dried fruit has become mainstream in the States. I spoke with Colleen Sundlie, founder of the  Date Lady, to ask for her tips for getting creative with this versatile, nutrient-packed fruit.

The History

This naturally dehydrated fruit goes back over 5,000 years, and is native to the Middle East. These babies require a hot, dry climate, and are grown in the Middle East, Africa, along with California and Arizona. You may be familiar with the Medjool variety, but there are numerous other varieties including Dayri, Halawy, Thoory, and Zahidi which may be found in specialty food markets.  Most varieties are about 1-2 inches long and have an oval shape with a single oblong seed inside. The skin is paper thin, while the flesh has a sweet taste.

Dates are green when unripe, and turn yellow, golden brown, black, or deep red when ripe. The sweet fruits are typically picked and ripened off the tree before drying. You can find pitted and un-pitted dates at the market.

The Nutrition Lowdown

One date contains 66 calories, 18 grams of carbs, 16 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of fiber. One date also contains small amounts of a multitude of good-for-you nutrients like B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Dates are free of fat and cholesterol.

Dates also contain powerful antioxidants, including anthocyanins, carotenoids, and polyphenols. Eating a diet high in antioxidants has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.  The soluble fiber found in dates can help lower the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science found that dates may also help maintain bowel health and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Getting Creative with Dates

So what have dates become so popular lately? “Dates are the perfect natural sweetener,” explains Sundlie. “They add deep complexity to the flavor profile, not to mention nutrition.” With the 2015 dietary guidelines capping added sugar at 10% of total calories, many folks are turning to natural sweeteners like dates to add flavor and depth to dishes. “People are just now really starting to catch on to the fact that dates have that deep, caramel complexity and amazing cooking and baking application opportunities. They are no longer getting confused with figs and prunes.”

The market has also gone beyond just dates. You can now find date syrup, date sugar, balsamic date vinegar, and chocolate date spread. All these products can help add sweetness to recipes using dates.

Here are a few ways you can get creative with dates in the kitchen:
  1. Bake them: Add chopped dates to loaves, cookies, and muffins.
  1. Stuff them: Stuff pitted dates with almonds or cream cheese for an easy appetizer

Recipe to try: Stuffed Sweet Dates
  1. Roll them: Pulse in the food processor and mix with nuts and coconut flakes, or chia seeds to make protein-packed balls or bites.

Recipe to try: Honey-Almond Date Balls
  1. Blend then: Instead of sweetener, add dates for natural sweetness in smoothies
  1. Mix into dressing: Try Sundlie’s own recipe (below) for salad dressing using date syrup.
Salad Dressing in a Snap (pictured above)
Serves: 6
1/4 cup date syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
1/8 cup balsamic vinegar
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon tarragon
1 teaspoon sumac
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper

In a small bowl, whisk ingredients together and serve. Yield: ¾ cup.

Nutrition Information (per 2 tablespoon serving): Calories 121; Total Fat 9 grams; Saturated Fat 1 grams; Protein 0 grams; Total Carbohydrate 10 grams; Fiber 0 grams; Sugar: 0 grams; Cholesterol 0 milligrams; Sodium 7 milligrams

Recipe courtesy of Colleen Sundlie.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of  The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day .

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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