A good date makes a great gift

Melissa d'Arabian
Associated Press

All the parties and gatherings of the holiday season mean we often find ourselves in need of gifts. Sure, there are bottles of wine and pans of marshmallow-studded fudge, mini-loaves of banana-walnut bread and numerous plates of festively mismatched holiday cookies. But this year, maybe try something new to satisfy your gift-giving needs.

Try my Madeira-marinated dates, which can be used as a deliciously sweet relish or an eat-from-the-jar treat. The jar is gorgeously wintery and your recipient will have something stashed in the refrigerator that can be put to use serving guests or satisfying a sweet tooth (without derailing healthy eating habits).

And the best part for you? They take just about 10 minutes to make. All you do is load up a half-pint jar with medjool dates (or dried apricots, prunes or other dried fruit) and pour in a boiling Madeira-spiked simple syrup flavored with orange zest, vanilla paste and warm cinnamon. Put on the lid and you’re done.

The dates are an ideal topping for Greek yogurt or crepes. Or spoon a date and some syrup into a rounded tumbler of sparkling water (or wine) for a light holiday cocktail, or add to a mug of steamy cider. Or pour the dates and syrup over a block of light cream cheese and serve with low-fat graham crackers. In the mood to bake? Chop up a few dates and add them and a few tablespoons of the syrup to your favorite healthy mini-muffin recipe for a version of fruitcake you’ll be excited to eat.

But my favorite use for these golden marinated gems? Just nibbling on a date, straight from the jar, along with a velvety espresso for dessert. Warning: there is sugar in this recipe! I don’t recommend eating the whole jar! A little goes a long way here. And this wintery sugarplum-like goodness is worth it.

Melissa d’Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook, “Supermarket Healthy.” melissadarabian.net

Madiera-Marinated Dates

Medjool dates are the plumpest, sweetest and most tender of dates available in the U.S. They are the best choice for this recipe.

1 1/4 cups water

2/3 cup sugar

2/3 cup Madeira wine

4 small (2 inches) strips orange zest

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste

2 1/2 cups medjool dates

4 cinnamon sticks (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, wine, orange zest, cinnamon and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer until syrup begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Meanwhile, divide dates among 4 half-pint jam jars. Add a cinnamon stick to each jar, if desired. Pour the boiling syrup over the dates, making sure they are completely covered. Divide the orange zest strips so there is one in each jar. Cover the jars immediately with the lid and secure tightly. Let sit for at least 1 hour before serving, or up to a month.

Per serving (1/4 jar): 110 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 25 g carbohydrates; 23 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 30 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 2 g fiber.