I would love to eat a fresh date, preferably right now while taking in the sight of an azure Mediterranean sky through a spray of palm fronds. Today, instead of that, I have muted gray winter light (a chance of snow, they say) and some dried dates.
In Miami, where I once lived, huge majestic date palms were planted all around the grounds of fancy hotels and private homes, and at one of my favorite public spaces anywhere, the Fairchild Tropical Gardens. I’m pretty sure the clusters of brilliant yellow fruit that would sometimes appear on the trees were not good to eat. Date palms are natives of hot, dry desert places.
They’re grown in the humid zone of South Florida, often dug up and imported there from other places at huge expense. But while they can flourish on South Beach like sunbathing debutantes, it’s not their ideal climate for fruit-bearing.
I’ll have to wait until I’m in a place like California in winter to bite into a fresh date, an experience that Alice Waters describes in Chez Panisse Fruit as “soft yielding flesh, with a mildly sweet, rich flavor entirely different from that of the hard, wrinkled and cloyingly sweet dates in the package.”
Medjool dates are dried dates, but far from hard and dry, I think. They have a rich quality – kind of luscious really – plump and tender inside. And you can find them in almost every well-stocked market in the produce section at this time of year.
This is another winter salad, and when I eat it I don’t feel deprived of fresh green things at all. It’s sturdy, crunchy, a little bit bitter. I enjoy the contrast of flavors: salty cheese, sharp lemon, sweet-smoky fruit. And also the temperature; warm, moist dates in a cool salad.
- 6 Medjool dates
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 bunch lacinato (Tuscan) kale, stemmed
- Leaves from 2 romaine lettuce hearts
- 1 small head radicchio
- Juice from 1 lemon
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Flaked sea salt or kosher salt
- 1/3 cup freshly grated aged sheep's milk cheese, such as Manchego or Pecorino Romano
- Heat oven to 375 degrees.
- Halve the dates, remove the pits and slice each half into 4 slivers. Toss the dates with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and the smoked paprika on a small baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes.
- While the dates are in the oven, rub the garlic on the inside of a big salad or serving bowl.
- Stack the kale leaves 2 or 3 at a time and slice crosswise into thin ribbons; repeat with romaine leaves. Cut the radicchio head in half and cut out the white core; slice the leaves into thin ribbons.
- Put all the leaves in the serving bowl. Add the remaining olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper to taste and a good pinch of salt. Toss with your hands to coat, add the cheese and toss again. Taste and season with more salt if needed.
- Distribute the warm dates over the salad and serve.