This spring, buy yourself flowers, clear out your calendar and make a date -- with dates.
A staple ingredient of many Middle Eastern kitchens, these sweet fruits are harvested from the majestic canopies of date palm trees and are sure to conjure up dreams of sun and warmth as we celebrate the return of light.
From leafy green salads to pork tenderloin to your morning protein shake, dates add a natural sweetness and a caramel-toffee flavor that is fun to experiment with in both sweet and savory recipes. They add a sweet accent to braises, barbecue or roasts and are equally delicious in baked goods and breakfast.
The color of root beer with slightly crinkly skin, dates turn darker and become satisfyingly sticky as they ripen. Although there are dozens of varieties, in the U.S., the most commonly sold date is the medjool, with an estimated 90 percent of the native Moroccan fruit being grown in Coachella, California.
The first time I fell in love with dates was on a backpacking trip in New Zealand. I spent a semester there with the National Outdoor Leadership School and a bag of dates was part of our food ration. Along with the 2-pound block of cheese and a tiny bottle of hot sauce, the dates quickly became one of the most highly anticipated addition to meals.
My specialty was cinnamon date bread. Using my pocket knife, I would painstakingly cut the dates into tiny pieces that sparkled like gems. I'd add them to the dough and keep it in my down jacket for warmth so it would rise. Then I'd bake it over the WhisperLite camp stove and pull steaming chunks off to eat for dinner. The simple pleasure of sharing this treat, cultivated from so far away, is something I will always remember.
Braided date and prosciutto puff pastry
Dates and prosciutto are the dream team of appetizers. No matter how you mix or match them, the sweet and savory combination is all-star. I am a sucker for dates stuffed with feta and then wrapped in a slice of prosciutto before being baked. This is a riff off of that idea, with dates, prosciutto and feta being mixed and then wrapped in puff pastry. Think of it as a grown-up pig in a blanket.
15 pitted medjool dates
6 slices of prosciutto
1/2 cup feta or gorgonzola
1 sheet of puff pastry
1 egg yolk
Add dates and prosciutto to the food processor and pulse until chunky. Add cheese and pulse a few more times to mix.
Roll out puff pasty (thaw if needed). Spread filling onto middle and cut diagonal strips into the puff pastry on either side of filling. To braid, alternate putting each strip on top of the filling.
Brush the crust with an egg yolk wash for a perfect golden color. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and add a sprinkle of sea salt.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.