This morning I made a date relish to accompany our braised chicken dinner. The relish is a simple combination of sliced fresh dates, cilantro, lemon juice and olive oil and should be a good compliment to the spicy braise.
Dates are definitely an undervalued American fruit. In most supermarkets the only dates available are those odd desicated bits that make their way into GORP and fruitcake. Even when you do occasionally see fresh they are usually the most common Medjool variety which, while quite tasty, are only one of the dozens of varieties available, ranging in size from tiny to more substantial, from slightly sweet to pure maple syrup, from Barhi to Deglet Noir and back again. Plenty of other countries use dates liberally, including Australia, where sticky date pudding is practically a religion and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where they are eaten out of hand and cooked alongside savory meats.
I always think about dates this time of year, with Thanksgiving fast approaching. Not only does their complex flavor pair well with fall fruits, rich caramels and bitter chocolate, they also always played a starring role at our Thanksgiving table. My grandmother, who otherwise was not a good cook, would make her famous stuffed dates every year for the holiday. The dates, which are stupidly simple, are very rich and very delicious and are just the thing to serve alongside your pies or as an accompaniment to that lazy fireside glass of port. In our house, the bowl usually appears on the coffee table just after the Macy's day parade cheers in Santa Claus and they are steadily consumed throughout the afternoon, which may account for our lackluster performance at the dinner table. Each date must be wrapped in a small square of tin foil; the foil keeps the filled dates from drying out, and it makes each one seem like a little gift.
To make these dates, pit a whole mess of fresh dates by slicing the side of each one and carefully extracting the pit. (Medjool dates are actually good for this recipe because they are firm and can be easily stuffed.) In a small bowl, combine softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. (How much? That depends on how many dates you have. You want the filling to taste a bit like not-very-sweet cream cheese frosting.) If you are feeling fancy, you can add a little lemon zest to the filling, too. (N.B. Grammy didn't do that.) Using a teaspoon or your fingers, pinch off a little of the cream cheese mixture and stuff it into the date. Squish the date around the filling, and top the hole with a toasted walnut. Wrap the date in foil. Repeat.