Although dates are commonly used in North African and Middle Eastern kitchens, Americans most often use them for holiday baking. But dates can add variety to meals all year round. Their versatility has made them a staple food for at least 5,000 years. Here in the U.S., dates are cultivated in southern California and Arizona. Dates grow on statuesque palm trees in dry, hot regions where there is enough ground water to sustain not only the growth of new foliage but also strong trunks as tall as 100 feet. A vigorous date palm can produce up to 100 pounds of fruit every year for a century. Date palm leaves are used for Palm Sunday in Christian religion. Their concentrated sweetness, rich flavor, stickiness, and meaty texture lead many to think dates are a dried fruit, like dried plums. But most dates are only slightly air-dried and they are technically considered fresh fruit. Many different types of dates are available in grocery stores, including soft, semi-dry and dried dates. Since dates contain relatively little water, they do not become much more concentrated upon drying, although the vitamin C disappears in the process. When shopping, choose plump, soft fruit with smooth, shiny, dark-amber skin. Avoid those that are badly cracked, smell sour or have formed sugar crystals (a sure sign that they are past their prime). When at home, store dried dates in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Tightly wrap soft and semi- dry dates in plastic wrap, and store them in the refrigerator for up to one month. Dates are high in dietary fiber, carbohydrates, potassium, vitamins A, B2, B3, B5 and contain more than 20 different amino acids. Dates are part of the white food group in the 5-A-Day nutrition color chart. White provides for heart health, cholesterol levels that are already healthy and a lower risk of some cancers. Date Cream Cheese Spread 8 oz. cream cheese, softened 3 oz. dates, chopped 2 oz. pecans, chopped cup sugar (optional) Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix until well blended. Use on celery, crackers, mushrooms, etc. Next week: Figs Facts in these articles are obtained from medical and clinical journals, scientific publications, and published tradebooks. These articles have been written and published strictly for information purposes. For any questions contact Susan at trijrsL@msn.com or www.fruitandveggienurse.com.