Ina Garten's Pro Tip For Finding The Freshest Dates At The Grocery Store

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Ever since the viral TikTok date bark recipe took off, we've been obsessed with all things dates. Incredibly sweet and chewy, dates add a luxurious layer of flavor to everything from savory dishes to baked goods and desserts. While there are hundreds of varieties of dates, the one that rightfully deserves its nickname as the fruit of kings is the Medjool. Larger than the familiar deglet noor variety, Medjool dates are desired for their caramel-like sweetness that makes them delicious eaten on their own, in ice cream shakes, roasted with meats, or cooked in stews.

Medjool dates are the perfect finger food and just the right size for stuffing. Fit almonds inside for a crunchy, high-energy snack, or fill them with peanut butter and dip in chocolate for a treat to rival any candy bar. Ina Garten puts her own spin on stuffing them in her recipe for Warm Dates with Blue Cheese and Prosciutto, which she makes as an appetizer in her book "Cook Like a Pro." Her pro tip concerning dates is to, "look for dried Medjool dates in the produce section of your grocery store; they will be the freshest" (per "Cook Like a Pro"). While you might think Medjools are stocked with other dried fruits or in the baking section near the raisins, they will usually be with the other fresh fruits and vegetables. And here's why — despite Garten referring to them as dried, Medjool dates are actually not dried at all — they are fresh fruit.

Fresh, exciting, and so inviting

Far be it for us to contradict the Barefoot Contessa herself, but the assumption that Medjool dates are a dried fruit is a common and understandable mistake. Their wrinkled outer skin gives them a shriveled appearance similar to dried prunes, but dates are not dehydrated, and their inner flesh is plump, soft, creamy, and moist. Like coconuts, dates grow on palm trees (date palms) and are picked when ripe. They are best enjoyed straight from the tree, earning them another nickname — tree candy — but thanks to refrigeration, they can be found fresh even when not in season. Medjool dates are rarely dried, other than when made into powdered date sugar — a vegan alternative to white sugar.

Native to Morocco and cultivated as early as 4000 B.C. in what is now Iraq, today medjool dates are grown throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and other warm regions around the world. In the United States, they are grown predominantly in Southern California, along with Arizona, Texas, Florida, and parts of Utah. As they've gained popularity in the U.S., they've become easier to find in grocery stores, as well as in Middle Eastern and specialty markets. Direct-from-farm Medjool dates are sold at the grocery store in the produce aisle, either loose by the pound or in pint containers. Packaged, fresh Medjool dates are also available in stores from brands like Joolies, a family-run date palm farm producing organic, sustainable dates in the Coachella Valley.

Sweet dreams are made of this

Ina Garten's Medjools, blue cheese, and prosciutto recipe is a scrumptious take on classic sweet and salty bacon-wrapped dates. She demonstrates the recipe on an episode about make-ahead entertaining on her TV show, "Barefoot Contessa: Modern Comfort Food." The three-ingredient hors d'oeuvre is so easy to make that no recipe is required. Simply slice open Medjool dates down one side to remove the pits, then stuff with blue cheese. Smush the dates back together, then wrap with sliced prosciutto. Bake until the ham just starts to brown, and the cheese gets melty.

There are so many variations on this theme that you could try. Giada De Laurentiis makes a similar dish with seasoned goat cheese and mascarpone instead of blue cheese, and she serves them as is, not baked, for a quick, no-cook nibble served on a toothpick.

Aside from being delectable, Medjool dates are packed with nutritional benefits. While they do have a naturally high sugar content, they are also high in fiber and considered low on the glycemic index. Dates are high in vitamins and minerals and are a good source of calcium, copper, magnesium, selenium, and B vitamins. In particular, they have high levels of potassium — 50% more by weight than bananas. Any way you slice them, or stuff them, Medjool dates are a delicacy to look for at the grocery store wherever fresh produce is sold.