We’re nowhere near “finishing” anything. We’re just getting started on a long overdue post about an epic, epic, epic last supper-style feast for the ages (can you get a sense for how incredible it was?) that went down a month ago, so while you’re waiting during the equally epic putting-together of the whole story, we thought we’d share the little things that probably won’t make the final post — “blouttakes” (blog outtakes?) if you will.
First up…fresh dates! And no, we’re not talking about the three guys we had to kick to the curb when they were so bold as to invite themselves to the dinner. (That story belongs on a different blog.)
We discovered fresh dates when we spied them from the cash register line in a Middle Eastern market, one of three bazillion stops we had to make to shop for ingredients for the dinner. (Incidentally, if you live on the west side of LA, you should pop into the tiny Jordan Market on Westwood Blvd when you have a chance and just browse.) An old gray-haired man was pulling bunches of the pale mustard yellow things out of a large cardboard box and putting them in a basket for display at the end of the counter. I wanted to ask him if he dressed himself in that charcoal gray sweater vest-over-t-shirt or if he just shared the same stylist with BoyzIIMen.
But instead, I asked him what those yellow things were.
“These?! These are dates!!!” He was cough-snarling as he shook a bunch of the dates at me in a way that made me glad I didn’t ask him about his sweater vest.
I didn’t say anything except “oh!” but he must have heard offensive thoughts that I wasn’t even thinking because he shouted a response at me.
“We are Middle Eastern! We eat different kind from you!”
Somehow I ended up taking home two branches of them just to prove that I was okay with his dates.
Fresh dates are exactly that — they’re the fresher, just-picked version of the dark brown dates with cracked, wrinkled glassine-like skin that we’re used to seeing (and eating). Because of the way those look, forever, I used to think that dates were a dried version of some other fruit, the way a raisin is a dried grape or a prune is a dried plum. No, dates are dates. Their wrinkled brown ripe state is soft and sticky sweet; the fresh version has the hard-crisp texture of an apple or very firm pear and a flavor that varies with the particular fruit from sweet-tart to…nothing. It was the same kind of “nothing” flavor of the yellow, oblong Korean melon called “cha-mae.” If you’re Korean, you know what I mean. If you’re not Korean, lucky you never had to sit around a Mother of Pearl coffee table after dinner quietly suffering styrofoam-for-fruit as “dessert” while your American friends got to eat ice cream sundaes.
According to this article in the New York Times (from five years ago!), fresh dates are in season for only 2-3 months starting in August, so unfortunately, they’re probably not available anymore this year. However, come late summer next year, I’ll go back to that Middle Eastern market with a purpose: to buy fresh dates for this gorgeous recipe from Taste of Beirut for Candied Dates, and to serenade the old man with It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.
Candied Dates with Cardamom
1½ pounds of fresh yellow or red dates
2½ cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
Green cardamom seeds, crushed with a knife or mallet (traditionally, cloves are used)
½ cup peeled pistachios or almonds (almonds or candied orange rinds are used traditionally)
Peel the dates with a peeler; one option is to boil them first and then peel them when they have cooled.
Place the dates in a saucepan and cover with water. Simmer gently until they are soft when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes or more. Cool a bit.
Remove the dates from the saucepan and with the tip of a knife or a vegetable corer, dislodge the seed from the dates and any strings from the inside of the fruit. Insert an almond inside or some pistachios.
Place the dates back in the pot and add 2½ cups of sugar. Leave overnight or 12 hours or so.
The next day, measure the syrup and add enough water to equal 4 cups. Add the cardamom or cloves and boil the syrup down, adding some lemon juice until it is syrupy. Place the dates back in the syrup and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Cool. Place in sterilized jars. Serve or store in the fridge.