A Date to Remember

February 8th, 2010

dateLove is one of the greatest renewable resources we have, and the world can never get enough of it. So I’m all in favor of a holiday devoted entirely to celebrating love, be it romantic or platonic.

Before you shower your sweetie with the traditional Valentine’s Day chocolates and roses, though, keep in mind that those sweet confections may hide a bitter history. Nearly half the world’s cocoa beans are harvested from the Ivory Coast cocoa plantations that have become notorious for their brutal exploitation of enslaved children.

And that armful of roses may seem less fragrant, too, when you realize that most of the 1.5 billion roses we buy annually, mainly from Latin America, have been grown using toxic pesticides and fungicides that aren’t even legal here at home.

Happily, it’s becoming easier every year to avoid these karmically challenged conventions by seeking out fair trade chocolates and organically grown roses.

But why not convey your affection with tasty homemade confections instead? Skip the sugar and try sweetening your treats with dates, the fruit that’s been called “the candy that grows on trees.”

Dates have been a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years–so long, in fact, that no one’s really sure exactly where they came from. Most of the world’s dates are still grown in the Middle East, but two varieties, the Medjool and the Deglet Noor, are also cultivated in California, Arizona and Florida. So show some love to America’s date growers and select the domestically grown varieties when you can.

Most of us think of dates as a dried fruit, but many are actually fresh–they just don’t contain much water to begin with. Dates are roughly 70% to 80% sugar, but they’re also high in fiber, potassium and iron. Pureed dates make a fine sugar substitute in many baked goods, providing valuable nutrients as well as a more natural, unprocessed sweetener.

Medjools are especially sweet and moist, while the more widely available Deglet Noor is a bit drier and less sweet. A handful of chopped dates can enhance entrees and side dishes, too, but this week I wanted to highlight alternatives to mass-produced, ethically dodgy Valentine’s Day chocolates. So I’ll skip the Savory Date Nut Fettucine with Feta from datesaregreat.com and steer you instead to our own easy but elegant Dusted Date-Walnut Truffles.

You can also make a raw, no-fuss fudge that tastes downright decadent, but is in fact chock full of good-for-you ingredients like cholesterol-lowering rolled oats and omega 3-rich walnuts. I call it My Fudgy Valentine, the heart-healthy, chocolate-y treat that loves you back:

My Fudgy Valentine(s)

1 cup pitted dates (ideally Medjool)

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup rolled oats, coarsely chopped in a food processor

1 1/2 cups cocoa powder

1 1/2 cups almond butter

1/2 cup dried shredded coconut

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Soak the dates in the water for an hour or so. Drain, reserving the liquid. Blend the dates and the vanilla in a food processor or blender, slowly adding the reserved water as needed to achieve a creamy texture.

Mix the date puree with the remaining ingredients in a food processor. Press into a lightly oiled 9″ square pan to form an even layer roughly 1″ thick. Refrigerate for several hours (or overnight), till firm. Cut into 1-inch squares and share with your loved ones, because on Valentine’s Day, who wouldn’t like a date?