My grandparents made it a yearly tradition to send our family a box of dates at Christmas. None too keen on dried fruit, mom would muster a gracious smile and set them aside. A few months later, someone would inevitably happen across that box, lifting its lid to discover petrified dates within, their brown skins curled and flesh turned whitish as the sugars crystallized. Mom would deem them inedible and chuck the box into the waste bin.
Year after year, those dates never failed to arrive, all gussied up in festive holiday wrapping, deceptively resembling a box of chocolates or candies. One glance at the return label and we knew better. Dates they were. Sometimes pitted, occasionally stuffed or perhaps wrapped in bright red and green foil; but always dates.
Each year, I remained hopeful as I bit into one of the oblong brown fruits, willing it to transform into a tasty morsel worthy of its fancy packaging. Without fail, the waxy skin would catch in my throat like a popcorn hull, its sticky texture and overwhelming sweetness, gag inducing. Duped yet again, I cursed those enticing shiny foil wrappers.
It’s a wonder I can eat a date today. Those early memories made a rather convincing case against further consumption. In fact, dates never crossed my mind until I discovered them on a menu in San Francisco. My husband and I were enjoying a long weekend, sans child, when we dined at Bar Tartine, run by the talented husband and wife team who also operate the immensely popular Tartine bakery, just down the street.
There they were at the top of the menu: bleu cheese stuffed dates. Though initially deterred, I was swayed by local Pt. Reyes bleu cheese and decided to give them a chance. These were not my Grandmother’s dates. The tangy bleu cut the sweetness of the plump, moist dates. With their slightly exotic flavor and a texture that bore little resemblance to the shriveled specimens of my youth, I actually liked them.
On the same getaway, we wandered into Gitane, a quirky little Iberian restaurant, tucked away on a tiny San Francisco street. Famished from exploring the city on foot, we hoped to share a few small plates, washed down with Spanish wine. First to catch my eye were ‘bacon bonbons’, essentially bacon wrapped prunes stuffed with chevre, in a port glaze. The bonbons arrived sizzling hot, slightly burning the tip of my tongue as I impatiently popped one into my mouth. When melded with musky port, the sugars in the fruit caramelized, contrasted by smoky bacon and the bright tang of chevre. I visibly swooned.
Back home, I got to work recreating the dates subsituting French bleu cheese and prosciutto for the chevre and bacon. The result was delicious. On another occasion, I seared the prosciutto, allowing time for the bleu cheese to melt and become a bit gooey. Even better. The final touch- a balsamic reduction, added to the pan after searing and drizzled over the dates before serving- Perfection.
crispy prosciutto wrapped bleu cheese dates with balsamic reduction
yields 4 – 6 appetizer portions
12 Medjool dates
4-6 oz thinly sliced good quality prosciutto di parma
4 oz creamy French bleu cheese, such as Bleu d’Auvergne, Fourme d’Ambert or Bleu de Basque
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
fresh rosemary or thyme sprigs, for garnish
Make a lengthwise incision in each date and remove the pits, leaving a 3/4” opening for cheese. Generously fill each date with bleu cheese, pressing date around cheese to close. Cut prosciutto slices into 12 – 1” strips. These will vary in length, based on the size of the slices. Wrap one strip around each date. Place dates on a plate and set aside.
In a small pan, heat balsamic vinegar on medium-low, simmering until it thickens and about half the liquid is reduced, 5-10 minutes.
In another skillet, on medium heat, sear the prosciutto wrapped dates, turning to brown evenly. Once browned, pour in the balsamic reduction and stir to coat. Remove from heat and place dates on a serving dish. Use a spoon to drizzle with remaining balsamic vinegar, in pan. Garnish with herbs. Rosemary sprigs may be used as rustic hors d’oeuvres toothpicks, if desired.
Serve at once.