With a history stretching back over 5,000 years, this venerable fruit grows in thick clusters on the giant date palm, native to the Middle East. The name is thought to come from the Greek daktulos, meaning “”finger,”” after the shape of the fruit. Dates require a hot, dry climate and-besides Africa and the Middle East-flourish in California and Arizona. Most varieties range from 1 to 2 inches long and are oval in shape (though some are so chunky they’re almost round). All dates have a single, long, narrow seed. The skin is thin and papery, the flesh cloyingly sweet. Dates are green when unripe and turn yellow, golden brown, black or mahogany red-depending on the variety-as they ripen. They’re generally picked green and ripened off the tree before drying. When fresh, dates contain about 55 percent sugar, a percentage that increases dramatically as the date dries and the sugar becomes concentrated. Fresh dates are available in some specialty markets from late summer through midfall. Dried dates are available year-round and are sold packaged-pitted and unpitted-and in bulk, unpitted. Chopped dried dates are also available in packages. Choose plump, soft dates with a smooth, shiny skin. Avoid very shriveled dates or those with mold or sugar crystals on the skin. Store fresh dates, wrapped in a plastic bag, in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Dried dates can be stored, airtight, at room temperature in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months or up to a year in the refrigerator. Dates are a good source of protein and iron.