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Farmers' Market Desserts
By Jennie Schacht











'The jujube 
asks less and
gives more
abundantly of its
fruits than almost
any other tree.'

Intrepid Epicure

Hardy Tree Yields ‘Chinese Dates’

Try It as an Asian Confection or
in Your Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing

Jujubes from the Pasadena farmers market, Aug. 22, 2009

In the early days of this century, agricultural researchers were convinced they had found a marvelous new crop for California farmers: a fruit with varieties hailing from both China and the Mediterranean called the jujube.

"Taking everything into consideration," concluded one early enthusiast, Knowles Ryerson, writing in the 1914 book, "California Fruits," "the jujube asks less and gives more abundantly of its fruits than almost any other tree numbered in the long list of California fruits."

Roger Meyer made essentially the same discovery about the jujube several years ago -- by accident. Meyer, a chemist who owns a nursery on the side called Valley Vista Kiwi in Fountain Valley, was tracking down some kiwi varieties in Redding when the owner of a nursery talked him into giving a couple of bare root jujubes a try.

Back home in northern San Diego County, he stuck them in the ground, and remarkably, a year later they bore fruit. Still, Meyer didn’t give the mottled, brown, date-like jujubes another thought, until his wife dropped a few into his lunch one day and a Korean coworker excitedly noticed them.

The rest is history. Meyer now grows about three dozen varieties of jujubes. He sells cuttings from his trees and said he can dispose of hundreds of pounds of the fruit in a day to buyers -- virtually all Asian -- who come to the nursery.

Meyer is now a genuine jujube enthusiast. But as such, he is a rare breed. The crop never caught on to the extent that the early supporters might have hoped. Just a smattering of farmers from the Sacramento Valley to San Diego County have a few trees and harvest the fruit from October into December for sale at some of the larger farmers markets, such as the Wednesday market in Santa Monica, and some smaller markets that cater to an Asian clientele.

What caught the eye of the early 20th Century agronomists in California is that jujubes need long, hot, dry summers to produce good fruit, a requirement met by most farming areas in California.

Researchers at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Chico collected dozens of varieties in the first couple of decades of this century and compared their performance. They learned that jujubes can put up with extremes at both ends of the thermometer, from 120 degrees in summer to 22-degree cold snaps in winter, without slowing down their prodigious production of fruit.

Dried jujubes from the Culver City, Calif., farmers market, March 27, 2007

So they grow well. But are jujubes worth eating?

Ryerson was conspicuously restrained in answering this question. He was not impressed with jujubes in the form preferred by the Chinese -- fresh and raw, when they taste somewhat like small, tart apples. "At this stage, the jujube is too mediocre in quality to compare favorably with our many other superior fresh fruits," he wrote.

Ryerson said jujubes offer far more promise as a confection, playing up their resemblance to dates, and a fitting use for a fruit that contains up to 20 percent sugar. The Chinese make a dessert out of fresh jujubes by simmering them in syrup until soft after first slashing the surface of the fruit with a bundle of tiny knives, Ryerson noted, "which gives a plump, attractive appearance to the finished product."

Researchers in the test kitchens at the USDA facility in Chico came up with many other ideas: jujube graham bread, jujube cake, jujube cake filling, jujube mock mincemeat and jujube sweet pickles, among others.

Meyer says jujubes are at their best when left to dry on the tree (they don’t dry properly once picked). Another exotic variation: smoked jujubes, which are black in color and are called "black dates" in Vietnamese markets, says Meyer. While most varieties are sweet, as preferred by Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese, Meyer says there is a tart variety that people from Thailand prefer.

One of Meyer’s personal favorite uses for the fruit will be on his family’s dinner table at Thanksgiving: roast turkey with jujube stuffing.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef