In Hebrew, the word for date is tamar, which denotes both the fruit and its tree of origin, the palm. Palm trees and dates show up many times in the Bible. The honey that the Israelites are told flows in the Promised Land is actually date honey. Palm trees crop up in instances when the Israelites need shade and sustenance (Exodus 15:27, Numbers 33:9). They also serve as symbols of righteousness –hence the statement in Psalms that “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree” (92:12). The Zohar, the preeminent book of Kabbalah, expands on this Psalm by mentioning another characteristic that palm trees and righteous people share: both take a relatively long time to arise and be cultivated.
Probably because they grow in the land of the Bible, dates play an important role in Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. They’re added whole to meat and vegetable stews, and reduced into a rich, molasses-like syrup that’s used in place of honey to sweeten many desserts.
Unlike most fruits, dates are best when they’ve been dried. Fresh dates, with their crunchy texture and somewhat diluted flavor, are an acquired taste. However, when dried, the flavor becomes concentrated, the flesh softens, and the date takes on a lusciousness that is downright irresistible.
There are many different varieties of dates, but the crown jewel among them is the Medjool. Medjool dates are larger than other varieties, and darker in color. They have the sweetest flavor and a distinctly chewy, sticky texture reminiscent of caramel.
One common way that Middle Easterners enjoy dates is by stuffing them and eating them as a snack. Dates can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients, from a simple whole almond, to nuts soaked in orange blossom water and honey. Here is a recipe for goat-cheese stuffed Medjool dates, a perfect snack for a summer afternoon.
20 Medjool or other soft, dark dates
5 oz goat cheese
fleur de sel or other flaky sea salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Layer a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice dates open lengthwise, remove pit, and place on baking sheet. Sprinkle each date with a small pinch of salt. Stuff each date with one teaspoon of goat cheese, and sprinkle another small pinch of salt overtop.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, until dates are fragrant and tender and goat cheese has softened considerably. If desired, sprinkle another pinch of salt over all the dates. Serve immediately.