If the $32 billion-plus yearly sales of the candy industry have one thing to tell us, it’s that ol’ Mr. Sweet Tooth is a naughty little guy. Yet what if . . . what IF . . . candy was actually good for you? Are these not the things dreams are made of?
Candy junkies looking for a healthier stash have reason to rejoice – and it’s not because of another brightly colored package hitting the shelves. Instead, the source of this sweet party is none other than the oldest known fruit: the date.
Nature’s candy: Known as “nature’s candy” by farmers and consumers alike, fresh dates are soft and smooth, and offer a caramel-like intense sweetness. There are many different types of dates — each with ranging sweetness and softness. The sweetest, juiciest (and most popular) dates include the Medjool, Zahidi and Honey Date varieties. Meanwhile, drier dates like the Deglet Noor are often ground into a paste and used as an ingredient in commercial goods.
The dating process: When first picked, dates look similar to very large yellow grapes on a vine. They are exceptionally hard and crunchy and similar to sugar cane, with high tannins that immediately dry out the mouth. Recently, at a local farmers’ market in Southern California, I had the privilege of trying fresh-off-the-vine yellow dates. I found them rather inedible at this stage, but it’s at this crunchy point in time that farmers will often harvest the fruit from the date palm trees.
Next, the dates are laid out in the warm sun for a few weeks to fully ripen. The wait is patient, but the transformation is incredible. Once hard and uninviting, the dates turn brown and wrinkly, developing into the softest, most wonderful gems of sweetness — each with a smooth caramel-like flesh and sweet syrupy nectar, protected by a delicate skin.
Prime energy: Dates provide instant energy in the form of glucose, and are one of the best natural sources of potassium – containing up to three times more potassium than bananas (when compared ounce per ounce). They are full of dietary fiber, along with iron, vitamin A, magnesium and may B vitamins as well. And of course, a handful of dates equal a serving of fruit!
Sweet diet: With the highest natural sugar content of any fruit, dates make a fantastic sweetener. Easily peel dates in half to pit them, and enjoy plain, mixed with nuts, or pressed into a paste for unlimited applications. I use pressed dates frequently as a natural sweetener in my healthy dessert recipes to replace the empty calories of sugar.
Date tips: The way to test a date’s freshness is by its moisture level. Generally speaking, a fresh date is soft, while an un-fresh date is dry. Dry dates can be soaked in water for 10 minutes to restore a bit of juiciness. If fresh dates are unavailable, avoid the mediocrity of dry dates and experience fresh dates in their full glory through ordering them directly from farmers online. Dates should be stored in the refrigerator, where they can be kept for months at a time.