Dates are among the sweetest fruits in the world. They are the fruit of date palms and come in many more varieties than anyone only familiar with dried chopped dates might imagine. Leanr more about fresh dates below.
Fresh Date Season
Dates are the fruit of date palms, which grow in the desert. Dates are harvested in February and March in Arizona and California where the U.S. crop is grown. If you've never had a freshly harvested date, they are worth seeking out for their insanely sweet, caramel-like taste and soft texture. Farmers markets in Southern California and Arizona may have fresh dates in season; they are also available mail order from some growers and may be found at Middle Eastern markets.
That said, most dates are allowed to hang on the trees to "cure" and dry a bit. These are the "fresh dates" available at many specialty grocery stores and they are also perfectly delicious.
How to Choose Fresh Dates
Fresh dates can be wrinkled, but they shouldn't feel hard. Look for fresh dates that are plump looking and have a slightly glossy look to their skin. Avoid dates that have crystallized sugar on their skins (a little whiteness is okay, but not actual crystals).
Types of Dates
There are endless varieties of dates grown in the Middle East. In the U.S. the most commonly available dates are Deglet Noor dates, which are semi-soft, slender, and a bit chewy, and Medjool dates, which are plump and tender. Other varieties may be available at your farmers market if you're lucky enough to have date growers selling there.
Dates are also classified by when they're harvested, since that determines how soft or dry they are. Freshly harvested dates are very soft; most "fresh dates" for sale in the U.S. have been left on the tree for awhile after they are ripe to dry a bit (and thus last longer after harvest).
How to Store Dates
Fresh dates are partially dried and last awhile. Store them in a sealable container at room temperature for up to two months.
How to Use Dates
Fresh dates are, to my mind, best eaten just as they are, with a cup of coffee or tea alongside to cut the sweetness. Add them to salads or to sweeten roast chicken or pork. Serve them, pitted and stuffed with Parmesan or blue cheese, as simple appetizers. Or, get very Southern California, and make a date shake by whirling fresh, pitted dates with ice cream.