Delicious dates for Tu B’Shevat

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Tu B’shevat, the Jewish new year of trees, begins at sunset on January 19 and lasts one day. In addition to planting trees on this holiday, the custom is to sample the seven species of foods (Shivat Haminim) mentioned in the Torah, Deuteronomy 8:8.  These are thought to be the first fruits of the land of Israel. One of the seven is the date. (I wrote about another, the fig, back in August 2009. The other five are barley, wheat, pomegranates, olives and grapes.)

On a trip to Israel last fall, my husband and I marveled at the heaping boxes of plump, glistening dates at all the food markets. On our way to Masada along Route 90, we were struck by the sight of rows of date palm trees growing alongside the shores of the Dead Sea. Though most of those date palm trees were likely imported from California, the trees were once native to Judea.

I recently learned that archaeologists excavating Masada in 1963 found a handful of date seeds. After tests indicated the seeds were approximately 2,000 years old, the scientists carefully stored them away. In 2005, three of those seeds were planted. One sprouted, grew to a height of 4 feet, and is nicknamed, “Methuselah.”  It is the oldest seed known to have sprouted.

This biblical fruit is still valued today for its nutritional qualities and its many culinary uses. Dates are a great source of fiber, rich in iron and potassium and vitamins A and B. They are believed to aid in the prevention of certain cancers and are used in the treatment of various heart and intestinal ailments. And a single date, with its high sugar content, provides a natural energy boost.

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Most of us associate dates with rich, delicious baked goods such as the ever-popular Date Nut Bread. However, dates can also add intriguing flavor to poultry, lamb, fish, vegetables and grains.

Fresh dates are in season toward the end of summer for a couple of months. While it is rare to find fresh dates in your local supermarket, they occasionally show up at Middle Eastern markets, such as Jay’s International (on South Grand Avenue in the city) and Global Foods in Kirkwood. Though I have yet to taste one fresh, they are supposed to be as crunchy as an apple with a sweet and cinnamon-like flavor. Ripe fresh dates should be bright yellow, plump, free from brown spots and still attached to their branches. If and when you find them, you can store them in the refrigerator for two weeks.

Ordinary dried dates, which are used primarily for cooking and baking, can be found just about anywhere from your local supermarket to your neighborhood Walgreen’s to the Dollar Store. They are sold in sealed bags or boxes, either whole or chopped. You can store them, sealed tightly and at room temperature, for a year.

Medjool dates, which are large and meaty, are currently available, individually or in pint boxes, in many grocery stores and farmers markets. You can easily seed them by cutting a small slit down the middle of the fruit and pulling out the large seed. Though they also can be stored, these are seasonal dates that taste best at this time of year.

Medjool dates are delicious eaten plain or rolled in shredded coconut. They are also perfect to serve as hors d’oeuvres, as follows, and accompanied with a glass of wine: To prepare, simply season room temperature cream cheese, mascarpone cheese, goat cheese, or bleu cheese (or a combination of any two cheeses) with a bit of honey and some grated lemon zest. Pipe or spoon the cheese mixture into a whole pitted date and top each one with a few toasted almonds or walnuts. Serve at room temperature. Or you can pop one into your mouth, plain, for a rich, luscious snack.

I have included a few recipes using dates, including Ruthellyn Roodman Rufa’s recipe for Date Pastries that appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 26, 1969.  They are fabulous. Enjoy, and chag sameach.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].

Couscous with Clementines, Chickpeas, Olives, and Dates

(Adapted from Bon Appétit December 2009 by Lora Zarubin)


2 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth

1 10-ounce package plain couscous (about 1 2/3 cups)

1 teaspoon salt

1½ tablespoons olive oil

1 navel orange

1 15-ounce can chickpeas

12 large green olives (such as Cerignola), pitted, quartered lengthwise

6 Medjool dates, pitted, diced

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

Bring broth to boil in small saucepan. Mix couscous, 1 teaspoon salt, and olive oil in medium bowl. Pour boiling broth over couscous mixture. Stir and cover pot. Let rest 15 minutes.

Mince the zest of the orange and place in a small bowl. Then, using a paring knife, peel the white pith from the orange.  Cut orange into ½-inch pieces and add to bowl with zest.  Set aside.

Drain chickpeas in a colander and rinse under hot water.  Set aside.

Remove lid from pot and transfer couscous to a serving bowl.  Fluff couscous with a fork and add chickpeas, olives, dates, mint, and orange pieces and zest. Stir gently until ingredients are evenly distributed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ruthie’s Cheese and Date Pastries



7 1/4 ounces chopped pitted dates

½ cup brown sugar, packed

¼ cup water


½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

¼ pound cheddar cheese, grated or shredded

1 cup flour

Cream the cheese and butter together, then add the flour and enough water to bind mixture, about three or four tablespoons. Press together to form dough. Cover dough and let rest on counter while preparing filling.

Cook dates with sugar and water over low heat until melted and smooth as paste, stirring constantly.  Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Divide dough into two equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll dough 1/8- inch thick. Using a two-inch cookie- cutter cut out as many circles as possible, rerolling scraps to cut additional circles.

Place a teaspoon of date filling in the center of half the rounds.  Cover each round with remaining rounds.  Press the edges together with the tines of a fork. Place the rounds on an un-greased cookie sheet. Repeat procedure with remaining piece of dough.

Bake pastries in preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Date-Lemon Chutney

(Adapted from “New Recipes From Moosewood Restaurant”)

Serve this wonderful chutney alongside simple baked or roasted chicken.


9 ounces pitted, chopped dates

3 tablespoons unsweetened dried coconut

½ teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh grated gingerroot

½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds

½ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ cup chopped, fresh parsley

½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Place dates in a heat proof bowl. Pour enough boiling water over the dates to cover. Let sit 5 minutes and drain dates, reserving water.

Combine dates and remaining ingredients in a bowl. Add a teaspoon of reserved water to mixture to thin, if necessary. Let chutney sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in refrigerator, covered, for up to 2 weeks.