Contrary to popular belief, dates are not a fruit. They are more technically a grain, as they come from the world’s second largest species of grass: the Phoenix dactylifera, or date palm.
“It digests way differently than a dried fruit. The way we sell the dates at the market is exactly how we pick them. We don't do anything to them, there's no drying, and there's nothing added to them,” said Robert Lower, owner of Flying Disc Ranch, who has been selling dates at the Santa Cruz Farmers Markets for the past ten years.
Flying Disc Ranch grows around 12 different varieties of dates, and usually has around six or seven at the market. Lower has been growing dates since 1974, and they flourish in the hot arid climate of Coachella Valley, just as they flourished in their original Mesopotamia.
Like many organic farms, Flying Disc Ranch is not “certified organic,” rather, but they grow their dates without pesticides in a permaculture environment.
“We call ourselves ‘ecosafe biodynamic’ and practice permaculture, which means we have multiple types of products growing within the same area,” said Lower. “The palms function as the canopy tree, then there is citrus below, and figs, pomegranates, grapes, and aloe vera all growing together. It's not separated into a monoculture.”
When it comes to eating them, dates are delicious on their own, and are a healthy and extremely sweet alternative to sugar for high fructose corn syrup-filled snacks.
“The different textures lends themselves to different uses. Primarily, I recommend just eating them raw, in smoothies, or in a combination with nuts or green vegetables. You can put them in salads they go with almost any kind of food," said Lower, who also pointed out that the softer the date, the sweeter the date.
In the kitchen:
The first time I brought home a bag of “Medjool” dates from the farmers market they sat in a dark cupboard for two weeks before I learned how to appreciate their peculiar and intense sweetness. Interestingly enough, they became more delicious to my palate after I nixed processed sugar from my diet.
Here are two delicious tried and true ways to eat dates. The first is a sweet and savory nibble that my friend calls her "Blue Moon Focaccia." Ideal for entertaining, it’s made with caramelized onions, blue cheese crumbles and diced dates. The second is a simple raw dessert from local Ayurvedic cook Talya Lutzker's archive. It's made with hemp seed oil (or your choice of walnut, peanut, or cashew butter) and rolled in organic coconut shreds.
To make the Blue Moon Focaccia:
Slice one whole sweet yellow onion into half rings, and sauté with a tablespoon of salted butter. Add a sprinkle of raw sugar and caramelize. Once the onions are done, lay on Focaccia or Ciabatta bread, and sprinkle salt and cayenne pepper. Chop three dates, and sprinkle over the onions. Top with blue cheese crumbles. Bake at 350 in the oven for 15 minutes or until the cheese browns. Sprinkle a little more salt when it comes out of the oven. Delicious as an hors d’ouevres. Recipe provided by Cheir Harty of Santa Cruz.
To make Raw Date Rolls:
Removing the pits of Medjool dates. Spoon a generous spoonful of organic hemp seed butter into each date. (Almond butter, raw tahini, cashews, and walnut butter are all healthy, high-protein ingredients that can be used instead of hemp seed butter.) Roll in organic coconut shreds and sprinkle with cardamom. Recipe provided by Talya Lutzker of Talya’s Kitchen in Santa Cruz.