A while back, my sister bought a package of walnut stuffed red dates from Costco and shared them with Mama Lin. In typical Asian mom fashion, Mama Lin took one look at them and declared that she could easily make them at home too. Usually, we roll our eyes when Mama Lin makes these kinds of statements. In this case, however, I’m glad she figured out how to make walnut stuffed red dates. I love snacking on them! As she worked on recreating this snack, she discovered that pecans work very well, too. That’s why I include directions on how to make the stuffed red dates with both pecans and walnuts.
WHAT ARE RED DATES (紅棗)?
Red dates, ziziphus jujuba, are a variety of dates that have been cultivated in Asia and the Middle East for thousands of years. In China, Xinjiang Province is known for its red dates. Other common names of the fruit include jujubes or Chinese red dates. I’ll be using the name red date and jujube here interchangeably. (Note: jujubes are different from dates that come from date palm trees, like medjool dates.)
Unripe jujubes have a light yellow-green color. At this stage, the fruit can be tart. As the fruit ripens, the outer skin turns brown. In the photo above, you can see that the dates are transitioning into their full ripeness. Fresh jujubes are slightly crispy but not juicy. Because the flesh isn’t succulent, the texture is almost foamy. In terms of flavor, jujubes taste almost like a sweet apple though jujubes have milder flavor.
When jujubes start to dry, the flesh wrinkles and the skin turns red. That’s why they’re known as “red dates” in Chinese (紅棗 in traditional characters; 红枣 in simplified characters).
Dried red dates are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In particular, red dates are supposed to help strengthen the bodily functions of the spleen and stomach, nourish the blood, and calm and relax the mind. If you are interested in learning more about the medicinal properties of red dates and how they’re used in TCM, check out Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen by Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir & Mika Ono. Besides their medicinal properties, red dates also add subtle sweetness to a dish.
WHERE TO BUY RED DATES
In California, you can usually find fresh jujubes at the farmers markets from September to early October. For dried red dates, you can find them year-round in Asian supermarkets. In Sacramento, you can usually find red dates in 99 Ranch Market, SF Supermarket, and Asian Food Center. You can also find them on Amazon.
HOW TO MAKE PECAN & WALNUT STUFFED RED DATES
PREPARE RED DATES
Mama Lin uses medium-sized red dates for this recipe mostly because that’s what she usually keeps in her pantry. They are about 1” to 1 1/4” long and about 3/4” wide. Extra large red dates (大紅棗/大红枣) work for this recipe as well. They’re generally about 1 1/2″ to 1 3/4” long and 1” wide, and they’re usually softer than the smaller red dates.
Although it isn’t necessary, Mama Lin likes to rinse the dates before she makes the snack. Place all the dates inside a bowl. Add a bit of salt and flour into the bowl. The purpose of the salt and flour is to clean any debris lodged into the deep ridges of the dates. If you’re gluten-free, you can use any type of gluten-free flour or use more salt.
Add some water into the bowl, enough to allow you to rinse the red dates. You don’t want to use too much water or else the salt and flour will be too diluted. Scrub the dates with the salt and flour. Drain the water and rinse the dates with two more changes of water.
Drain the dates and spread them over a baking sheet lined with a towel or paper towels. Then, pat the dates dry with another towel.
Walnuts and pecans are great for this recipe. Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Roast the pecans for 8 minutes; roast the walnuts for 9 to 10 minutes. Pecans are usually smaller and thinner, so they’ll roast faster. Let the nuts cool for at least 20 minutes.
One piece of pecan or 1/2 of a walnut half fits perfectly into a medium red date. If you’re using walnuts, slice the toasted walnut halves in half. You don’t need to slice the walnuts if you’re using large red dates. Also, you don’t need to do anything to the toasted pecans.
REMOVE THE PITS
Red dates have a small, thin pit at the center. Mama Lin uses a stainless steel straw to push the pit out of the date. Starting with one end of the date, push and twist the straw into the date. Keep pushing the straw until you reach the halfway point. Then, take out the straw, and push the straw through the red date on the other end, until the pit comes out. Remove the pit from the straw.
The reason why Mama Lin pokes the straw through both ends is because the red dates will look neater after the dates are pitted. In the photo above, my mom pushed the straw from one end all the way through to the other side. Do you see how the date rips open when she does this? Because this makes the dates look messy, Mama Lin recommends poking the straw through both ends.
Sometimes, the pit will get stuck inside the straw. When that happens, my mom uses a long BBQ skewer to dislodge the pit from the straw.
Some store-bought dates are incredibly firm and dry. If you’re having trouble pushing the straw through the dates because of their dryness, you should steam the dates. Steaming the dates helps soften them and makes the dates more pleasant to eat.
STEAMING RED DATES
Mama Lin doesn’t always steam the dates. Like I mentioned above, the steaming process can soften very dry dates. To steam red dates, bring about 2 inches of water to boil inside a wok. Place a tall steaming rack inside the wok. Spread the red dates over a plate and steam them for 5 to 8 minutes. You can also do this in any other steaming setup. Let the dates cool completely before pitting them.
SLICE RED DATES
Take a pair of kitchen scissors and poke one side of the scissors into the center of the pitted date and cut along the length of the date. The date should now open up like a book. Make sure that you don’t cut the date into two separate pieces because you’ll need to nestle the nuts inside the dates later. If you don’t have kitchen scissors, you can also slice the red date with a knife.
STUFF DATES WITH NUTS
Open up a red date and insert a piece of pecan or a half piece of walnut inside the date. Then, squeeze the date shut to secure the nut inside. Transfer the date to a plate and repeat until you’re done stuffing all the red dates with the nuts. These stuffed red dates should keep for 2 to 3 weeks.
MORE MAMA LIN RECIPES
- Stir-Fried Chayote
- Mama Lin’s Savory Chinese Pancakes
- Sweet & Sour Ribs
- Turnip Cake (Radish Cake, Lo Bak Go, 蘿蔔糕)
Stuffed Red Dates with Walnuts & Pecans
- 1 cup walnut or pecan halves
- 70 to 75 medium-sized dried red dates, about 1” to 1 1/4” in length, see note 1
For Rinsing Jujubes
- generous pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons flour
- baking sheet
- stainless steel straw, see note 2
- long BBQ skewer (to remove pits stuck inside straw)
- Position an oven rack to the center position. Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Spread the nuts over a baking sheet. If you’re using pecans, bake them for 8 minutes; for walnuts, bake them for 9 to 10 minutes. Let them cool for at least 20 minutes. You can roast the nuts several days ahead.
- If you are using walnuts, slice them in half.
Rinse Dates (Optional)
- Place the red dates inside a bowl. Add the salt and flour into the bowl. The purpose of the salt and flour is to clean the deep ridges of any debris lodged inside the ridges of the red dates.
- Add some water into the bowl, enough to allow you to rinse the red dates. You don’t want to use too much water or else the salt and flour will be too diluted. Scrub the dates with the salt and flour.
- Drain the water and rinse the dates with two more changes of water.
- Spread the rinsed dates over a baking sheet lined with a towel or paper towels. Pat the dates dry with another towel and let them dry completely.
- Take a red date and push the straw into one end of the date. Keep pushing the straw until you reach the halfway point. Then, take out the straw and push the straw through the jujube on the other end, until the pit comes out.
- Remove the pit from the straw. If the pit gets stuck inside the straw, use the BBQ skewer to push the pit out. If the red date is too dry, it will be difficult to push the straw through the date. Steam the dates to soften them. See note 2 for steaming directions.
- Take a pair of kitchen scissors and poke one side of the scissors into the center of the pitted date and cut along the length of the date. The date should now open up like a book. Make sure that you don’t cut the date into two separate pieces because you’ll need to nestle the nuts inside the dates later.
- If you don’t have kitchen scissors, you can also slice the red date with a knife.
- Open up a red date and insert a piece of pecan or a half piece of walnut inside the date. Then, squeeze the date shut to secure the nut inside.
- Transfer the date to a plate and repeat until you’re done stuffing all the red dates with the nuts.
- A note about straws: If you don’t have a stainless steel straw, try to find something else sturdy. Bamboo straws should also work. If possible, clean the inside of the straw after you pit all the dates.
- Using extra-large dates: You can also use the large, plump red dates (大紅棗/大红枣) for this recipe. Because these dates are larger, you can insert an entire walnut half into the date and it’ll fit perfectly. Therefore, if you want to make 70 to 75 stuffed red dates using the larger dates, you’ll need to roast 2 cups of walnuts.
- Steaming directions: To steam the red dates, boil about 2 inches of water inside a wok. Place a tall steaming rack inside the wok. Spread the red dates over a plate or pie dish and steam them for 5 to 8 minutes. You can also do this in any other steaming setup. Let the dates cool completely before removing their pits.