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Dates

Thanks to their sticky sweetness and wrinkly appearance, dates are commonly thought to be a dried fruit. They're actually the fresh fruit of the date palm tree, picked green and ripened off the tree. If they seem a bit precious, well, they are; it can take four to seven years for a date palm to bear fruit and seven to 10 years for a commercial harvest.

Dates likely originated in the Persian Gulf, and they've been a staple in the Middle East for thousands of years. The top producers today include Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Oman and Libya. In the United States, they're cultivated in southern California, Arizona and southern Florida.

Don’t let their sweet, caramel qualities fool you; dates are packed with dietary fiber and nutrients. They're a good source of manganese, and they're high in calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, copper, magnesium and polyphenols (an antioxidant).

The palm tree belongs to the genus Phoenix. Cultivar groups vary according to the glucose, fructose, and sucrose content of the fruit. Soft dates include: Barhee, Halawy, Khadrawy and Medjool. Semi-dry dates include: Dayri, Deglet Noor and Zahidi. Thoory is a dry date, very wrinkled, sweet and nutty. Pitted dates are also called stoned dates.

Dates are a treat on their own, but they're also delightful chopped into a snack mix, on top of a bowl of morning cereal or ice cream, or mixed into a main or side salad. Grains partner especially well with dates. Farro, Roasted Squash and Date Salad with Walnuts is a tasty Mediterranean-flavored salad, with ancient farro, olive oil, dates, feta and cinnamon.

Their sweetness is a great foil for an array of spicy flavors, too. In Grilled Curried Tofu with Sweet & Spicy Tamarind Chutney, dates and tamarind play off the strong flavors of ginger, cumin, curry powder, black pepper and cayenne.

Of course, a fruit this sticky and sweet shines in desserts, like Date Bars and Fruit and Nut Granola Bars. For an easy, no-bake treat, try mixing them with pistachio nuts and coconut in these Date and Pistachio Balls. Or craft a natural puffed brown rice crispy treat, Carob Date Crisps, with carob chips, dates, raisins, almonds and maple syrup.

Dates are in season from August through November.

Choose plump, shiny fruit that's soft and slightly wrinkled, not bruised or broken. It should be uniformly colored.

Store dates in a well-sealed container at room temperature for up to two months. In the refrigerator, you can store them up to one year. They can also be frozen for several years.

If your dates have dried out, place them in a bowl of warm water for several minutes, then pat dry and use.