When people first move to Southern California, our dates can come as a shock to them -- not the romantic kind or the ones on the calendar, but the fruit. Nowhere else has dates so luscious, so sweet and syrupy. And so varied.
In most of the United States, when you go looking for dates the only thing you'll find are hard little pellets that look like rabbit food. These might be OK for baking -- as long as you cook them long enough beforehand -- but they're nothing on the real thing.
But in Southern California, not only do we get dates that haven't dried into pebbles, we get a more than a half-dozen varieties of them. And at farmers markets, you can even find them at various stages of ripeness, from the apple-crisp khalal Barhis, sold on the branch, to rutab Medjools that resemble nothing so much as a barely jelled sugar syrup encased in a thin crust.
Which dates you prefer will depend on your taste, the farmer and the exact time of the fall you're shopping, so the best advice is to sample each and see what meets your approval. I'm normally a Medjool or Barhi guy, but I've had Halawys that were nearly custardy. Exquisite.
Put these on a platter with some sliced Honeycrisp apples or Bartlett pears and you've got a perfect fall dessert. In a couple of weeks, when the first good mandarins come in, that makes a magical combination.
How to choose: For the most part, choosing dates is as simple as picking the ones you like -- they are either dried or semi-dried, so they are not as fragile as most other fruits. The one thing I do is give them a good smell to check for any fermented odors.
How to store: You can keep most dates at room temperature for at least a week. The semi-dried rutab dates do need to be refrigerated, as do any dates you're planning on saving for an extended period.
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