Here is your history lesson. Stay with me here. We get to Fabio a bit later in this post.
Dates were a staple of the Babylonian diet as long as 8000 years ago, putting the date in the running for the distinction of being the oldest cultivated fruit. Subsequently, date cultivation flourished throughout North Africa and the Near East in climates where date palms could get the “hot heads and wet feet” that they require to flourish.
The Moors introduced the date to Spain from North Africa during their occupation of parts of Spain from the 8th century until they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 with the fall of Granada.
Cultivation of date palms in Spain turned out to be problematic, however, and crop yields were small. When the Spanish expanded their reach to North America, Spanish missionaries planted date palms at the California missions during the 1700s. Crops were sparse at the missions but the cultivation of dates in California’s Central Valley eventually took off.
In 1898, the United States Department of Agriculture created a special department of “agricultural explorers.” The explorers were tasked with traveling the world and identifying exotic (and potentially lucrative) crops to introduce into cultivation in the United States. At least one historian has labeled these explorers “the Indiana Joneses of the plant world.” Thank them for the introduction of the avocado, the mango, new varieties of oranges and new varieties of dates to the American market.
One such “adventurer” was William Swingle who, in the early 20th century, oversaw the importation of twelve Medjool date palm offshoots to the Coachella Valley from Morocco. Date production in California exploded after Swingle’s project. Propitiously, California’s young movie industry fell in love with everything Middle Eastern at about this time, giving the California date industry an unexpected boost. The 1920s discovery of Tut’s Tomb in Egypt segued perfectly with the enhanced marketing of California dates and California-made movies. Movies like “The Queen of Sheba” and the blockbuster 1921 Valentino film, “The Sheik,” created unexpected opportunities to promote California date production. Suddenly, dates were sexy. Valentino ate dates. Shouldn’t you?
Today, California date production accounts for approximately 95% of U.S. production of dates.
Whatever its lineage, the date, particularly the soft caramel-flavored Medjool, is one of my favorite foods. It is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in (low-glycemic) carbohydrates, potassium and magnesium, a good source of fiber and relatively low in calories at 110 calories per serving (2-3 fresh dates). No fat. No cholesterol. No sodium. No problem.
My love affair with dates wasn’t always so. I’ve had my share of the hard, shriveled, flavorless dates that come in those round plastic packages that appear to have been packaged sometime during the Spanish Inquisition.
I’ve chopped them. I’ve soaked them. I’ve microwaved them. Mostly I’ve thrown them out. There wasn’t much there to love.
Then a year ago, across the tables of zucchini and tomatoes, I spied the buff swarthy date salesman at the Farmers Market. He proffered one of his deep amber-brown Medjool dates and I lost my heart. (This is beginning to read like the opening sentence in one of those steamy Fabio novels. Sorry. I got carried away.)
In this recipe, I combined magnificent nut-stuffed Medjool dates with a bulgur salad for a neighborhood birthday party. The presentation was beautiful and the combination worked wonderfully. Here is the recipe. I previously posted the recipe for the dates that I used with this recipe on this site under the heading “Best Date Appetizers in the Parade.” You can find the recipe by clicking on the appetizers category on the right side of this page.
Recipe: Bulgur Salad with Mangoes and Pistachios
1 C. uncooked bulgur (fine)
1 C. boiling water
3 sliced honey mangoes
1/2 C. sliced green onions
1/4 C. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 T. chopped fresh dill
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
3 T. white balsamic vinegar
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly-ground black pepper
3-4 T. chopped pistachios
Pomegranate Seeds for garnish
Lettuce leaves for garnish
1 recipe stuffed dates (see recipe index on this site for Best Date Appetizer in the Parade)
Pour one cup of bulgur in a large bowl and cover with 1 cup of boiling water. Cover and leave on your counter for about an hour. When the hour is up, use a fork to fluff the bulgur.
Add parsley, green onions and dill to the bulgur and mix.
Prepare oil and vinegar dressing (olive oil, vinegar, salt and black pepper). Pour the dressing into the bulgur mixture and mix. Refrigerate overnight to let the flavors develop.
Just before serving, garnish bulgur salad with sliced mangoes and lettuce leaves. Sprinkle generously with chopped pistachios and pomegranate seeds. Arrange stuffed dates around the edge of the plate.
Cook’s Notes: When I first prepared this, the flavor of the oil and vinegar dressing was too strong for my taste. I wanted to taste the bulgar grain not the dressing. I added some additional bulgur. I would suggest that you might want to do the same, adding the dressing judiciously rather than all-at-once.