5.15.2011

Double Dates

On a recent trip to Yuma, Arizona, I met a wonderful woman named Caroline. She has a date farm and strong ties to the University where I work. While at dinner, I told her that I stopped en route at the world famous Dateland while driving to Yuma from Tucson. "You like dates?" she asked. "I love dates!" I effused! "Well, I am going to send you some..."  I told her she was a saint and  canonized her on the spot! She asked what I would do with them and I told her the usual: date bars, fruitcakes, sticky toffee pudding and so on. It wasn't until I mentioned pasta with bacon and dates that she raised an eyebrow... She then shared her nephew's recipe for peppers stuffed with dates an chorizo sausage. She is always looking for unique preparations that include dates.

Dateland: just what is it? Dateland is a piece of history - a rest stop between Tucson and Yuma, but seen mostly by folks heading to San Diego. It has a gas station, a little gift shop, some military history and, now, an elementary school. The article I read online (linked above) neglects to mention one reason it is well known: the restaurant/rest stop serves date shakes. Talk about a milkshake that has great fiber! So, on this most recent trip I stopped in for my first date shake. I am not sure what I expected, buy 'cloying' was one assumption. Oddly, it was neither cloying nor too sweet, and it had an almost vegetable overtone as I sucked it down. So I, too, have become one of the converted masses; I love date shakes!

A little more than a week after my visit with her, one of the front desk staff at The Honors College came to my office with large package weighing in at about 5.5 pounds. A box of jumbo medjool dates from Caroline!

I opened them immediately and tasted one - sublime! I don't think I have ever had such a fresh date in my entire life! The sweetness almost tickled the inside of my mouth, its taste earthy and dense, and it had a texture like caramel. When growing up in the 1960s, a date tasted nothing like this. Dates came in boxes, pre-diced, dried and condensed into a brick. Our job was to break the sticky mass apart to use them in Mom's oatmeal cookies (so much better than raisins...).

Once out on my own, I found an open bin of dates in the Wegman's supermarket in Rochester, New York. They were significantly dried out from too much fresh air, but I bought them anyway and they were 100% better than the boxed variety. I started stuffing them with cheeses (blue cheeses, goat cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano) to serve as easy appetizers (just like every normal college kid, right?). My college friends and I discovered how well these stuffed wonders went with a tawny port after concerts in my room. (Again, that normal college life...)

And that was pretty much my concept of dates in my life until Serena at the UA Foundation office made some date nut bars that were so good that I requested the recipe. She told me that her secret was some really fresh dates that she had picked up in Dateland.

These are the best dates I have ever had. Ever. I fear they will be gone soon and I will never taste another this fresh. But, happily, the box has all the information I need to reorder. The Bard Date Company can be reached by e-mail, phone and online - and of course via the U.S. Postal Service! Life will not end as I finish this box.
So - the "double date." Today, I have made both the  date nut bars and the pasta with bacon and dates.  I will be enjoying them both tonight while Mark is back East visiting his mother. So strange to have a Date Night without him here!

- David

Date Nut Bars
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped dates*
2 cups chopped pecans
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
confectioners' sugar

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the dates and pecans and then, using your fingers, break up the clusters of dates and coat with the flour/sugar/nut mixture to separate the pieces. Add the eggs, butter and vanilla; stir just until dry ingredients are moistened (batter will be very stiff).

Press into a greased 10-inch by 15-inch sheet pan. Bake at 350ºF for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool bars on a wire rack. Dust with confectioners' sugar and cut onto 1-inch by 2-inch pieces.  Makes about 5 dozen (very rich) bars.

     * When chopping the dates, it helps to oil the knife
       to keep them from sticking

Bacon, Date and Fennel Pasta

This pasta dish is what my friend Bunny would call "Inspiration du Jour," which basically means a reconnaissance mission into the fridge to see what is there. I had bacon. leftover fennel, these lovely dates and... voilà! A new dish is born. The dates almost break down and combine with the liquids to make a sweet and smoky cream sauce.

8 ounces short pasta, such as gemelli
4 slices applewood smoked bacon
1 large onion, slices in slivers
1 large fennel bulb, sliced in slivers
3-4 large dates, pitted and diced
½ cup white wine 
½ cup cream
pasta water
Manchego cheese, for serving
parsley, for serving 

In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until it starts to brown and has rendered some fat. Add sliced onions and fennel and sauté over medium heat until onions begin to brown - about 10 minutes.  

Meanwhile, in salted water, cook pasta until al dente.  

Add the dates to the bacon/onion/fennel mixture along with the white wine. Separate the diced dates using the liquid form the wine to keep them apart. If necessary, add some pasta water if wine evaporates too quickly.  Add cream and simmer until sauce is thick.  Drain pasta and add to the skillet with more pasta water as needed to get the sauce to your preferred consistency.  

Serve hot with thin slivers of Manchego cheese and parsley.

14 comments:

  1. Ooh, I love the idea of pasta with bacon and dates! Delicious. I also love dates stuffed with a little parmigiano and wrapped in proscuitto, cripsed under the broiler for a few minutes. In fact, you may have introduced me to that idea! R and I made them last year for a New Year's Eve party and they were a huge hit! Here's to many date nights to come!

    ReplyDelete
  2. David - That bacon, date & fennel pasta sounds great! That's going to show up on a menu in the near future.

    And, um, if you have any of those date bars left they sound like a great treat for a short road trip... :)

    Thanks for the post!
    Kevin

    ReplyDelete
  3. @ Liz - I think you and R will enjoy the pasta - it is unusual but very tasty!

    @ Kevin - there are more date bars than we could ever eat! I will bring them and some damp paper towels!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow what great new ideas for dates. I must stop at Dateland next time we go to LA.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow David, you are so enthusiastic about dates! :)
    You must visit Greece, we have a great production of dates that are unlike any other.

    I like dates, I'm not crazy about them, but love them in savory dishes rather than sweet. That pasta dish of yours looks amazing, I have to make it!
    Magda

    ReplyDelete
  6. Magda, I do like dates in just about any preparation. There is one type - I need to find out the name - which spreads like butter.

    I had no idea Greece was a big produce but it makes perfect sense considering the climate. Greece has always been on my travel list - but I just bumped it up a couple of notches! :) David

    ReplyDelete
  7. I just adore how you tagged the Title.. very fitting and cheeky.."giggles"... preservative free... do you think they would ship to Japan? I have a hard time finding organic Dates here.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yes, Elle Marie - I do think they will ship to Japan but I will ask Caroline. Organic is getting much easier to find here, for which I am grateful! I will get back to you... David

    ReplyDelete
  9. Growing up in the Middle-East, I am very fond of dates; I make pastries stuffed with dates mostly, but love any departure from my usual routine; this pasta dish is intriguing and also the appetizer wrapped in bacon idea. I love mejdool, thanks for the link. I made date jam from fresh dates this last summer. Love, love dates.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks! The date jam sounds really interesting. I would love a recipe for that! I make some pastries like yours, as well - very tasty! Thanks for reading!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Just before leaving for the students' annual Central Euro seminar, I too passed through Dateland on my way home from Yuma. After sampling one (or more) of each of the date varieties, I returned with a couple bags of honey dates, one of which made its way into my luggage as a gift for a couple who were my first food-guides in Hungary. When I presented them proudly with my present, Zsofie looked skeptical. "We've not had much success in our experience with dates," she demurred. But, being ever the polite hostess, she opened the bag and tentatively bit into a sample. And proceeded to pop the remainder into her mouth even as she performed the same favor for Feri, her husband, who was driving (and equally uncertain about the merits of my well-intended offering). "We've never tasted anything like this! It's MOIST and flavorful and like candy! We were introduced to dates only as dry and brittle...lumps when we were growing up. What a delight! A revelation!! We proceeded to share the bag for the next two hours of our journey to a hilltop winery for tastings and lunch, with a lakeside coffee following. And the conversation returned, with surprise and delight, always to the dates. I know what I will bring again next year. And this time I will bring my dear friend's recipes! (And perhaps an additional bag of Medjools w/ which to make them...) Thank you, David!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks, Michael! What a great story and how wonderful that your friends had an eye-opening experience with dates! Glad to have you back in crAZy!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi David, I love the Upside-Down Cake recipe and would have never thought of using apricots. One thing I do differently which really adds body and texture to the cake is to substitute some corn meal in place of the flour. I do this for my apple upside-down cakes as well as blueberry peach cake. Makes all the difference. Say 1/3 to 1/2. Let us know how you like it!?

    ReplyDelete
  14. I think adding cornmeal (especially the fine, white cornmeal) to a cake batter is a great idea. I once used masa in making a gluten-free cake without thinking and it tasted like a bad tamale! This cake, however, was quite firm even with all the intense goo from the fruit, but maybe I will add a bit of cornmeal next time. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for taking the time to leave me a note - I really appreciate hearing from you and welcome any ideas you may have for future posts, too. Happy Cooking!

If you would like to receive follow-up comments, simply click the "Subscribe by E-mail" link to the right of the "Publish" and "Preview" buttons.