Long, narrow boats of Styrofoam holding dates packed in like sardines, head to toe, back to back, side by side squished into place leaving nary a breath between them. Plastic pulled tightly over them all, stuffed in. There was always a boatful of pretty little dates in my parents’ refrigerator. Dates and dried figs. While the figs, dried and withered, the color of caramel, of autumn leaves, of baseball bats, were tough old things and stuffed with tiny little seeds that crunched, that stuck between teeth, dates were soft and tender, sweet as candy.
Peel back the plastic and pick off a date, sticky as glue. Packed in as they were, wedged into that boat, and pasted together, tacky, the dates had to be pulled apart, fingers wedged in and around, picked at, tugged out one by one. Sugary sweet candy coating, something syrupy, those dates stuck to fingers, the caramel coating remaining long after the date had been eaten. But how I loved those tender, sweet dates.
We instilled the tradition of Date Night early on when the first baby was born and tiny. And have continued it through the years. Now that the boys are grown, Date Night needs no planning, no organization, the search for babysitter is happily dispensed with. And Date Night now comes more often.
Date Night. The chance to dress up, slip into a something nice, something rarely worn (what with feeding babies, chasing after toddlers, catering to teens, walking dogs and cleaning house) and high heels, a dab of perfume and slip out into the night. Date night always means a choice restaurant, somewhere ethnic or Michelin-starred, a meal eaten while holding hands, listening to soft words rather than children’s babble or teens’ complaints. Or a movie and a box of popcorn.
Although Date Night meant working out dates, comparing agendas and calendars, scratching down dates on a bit of paper and taping it to the refrigerator door, nowadays Date Night needs no specific date. Would you like to go out tonight? he asks. Want to do something special? A walk? Cinema? Restaurant? And we put on our shoes, our coats and, hand in hand, head out for our date. An escapade, a weekend away, restaurant and hotel, these dates have been an important part of our marriage these twenty-some years. Keeping our marriage sweet, tender, tasty, as sweet, tender and tasty as dates.
Date: My mother always had a date nut bread, more cake than bread, in the refrigerator. And we knew that it was off limits, only for her, like those single serving fried egg sandwiches, cold canned creamed corn loosened with a bit of milk, frozen Oh Henry candy bars tucked way back in the freezer, and iced coffee. Her private pleasures, what separated her from the kids. Date nut bread from a can; popped out, it kept the shape of the can as she whittled it away, slice by slice. Or date nut bread homemade slathered with cream cheese frosting, white against the deep brown, the color of chocolate cake but tasting of molasses. And dates.
Double date: What’s this? he asked, holding up a jar he had removed from my sack, scrutinizing its odd, sepia-colored contents suspiciously. Curiously. Oh! That’s Date Mustard! I explained, silently scolding myself for not packing it into my suitcase that I had checked before heading to airport security. You can’t take this in your carry on, he returned. It’s more than the permitted three grams.
Earlier that morning, before my voyage home, I had accompanied two friends to a shop in the heart of an upscale London shopping district, a shop devoted to dates. But not just any dates, not the dates of my youth. These were exceptional dates, choice dates. Expensive dates. Like rare diamonds, precious gems, exquisite jewels, artisan chocolates, these dates were beautifully arranged, laid out behind glass in a specially crafted display case in the luxuriously appointed boutique. As my friends were offered tastings of each kind of date, I roamed around the shop looking at the other products, condiments, mustards, chutneys, sauces and jams, each made with dates, many blended with other choice ingredients. Each as expensive as the dates themselves. I decided to purchase a jar of date mustard, intrigued by the flavor, knowing that my husband would love it.
And so I found myself confronted by a man in uniform threatening to take that jar of date mustard from me. But, I tried to reason, to keep my calm, smile pasted onto my face, it isn’t a liquid, is it? And it’s a gift for my husband! You wouldn’t take away this gift to my husband? Desperation had begun to creep into my voice and I found myself perilously close to begging. The haggling went back and forth, he explaining that a paste was the same as a liquid, that rules were rules, that exceptions could not be made, I pointing out again and again that it was a gift, that it was extremely expensive, that I hadn’t been aware, apologizing for anything that crossed my mind. Time was rushing by and my flight would soon be boarding, I was running out of time and he wasn’t budging. He felt sorry for me, apologizing in his turn, even asking his higher-up to weigh in. I was near tears by the time I realized that I couldn’t stand there any longer, my pleading, my innocence only making his own eyes well up. Ah well, I finally, conceded, then you keep it, take it home. If my husband can’t enjoy it, then you do. It’s my gift to you, don't let it go to waste, as I dashed off to my gate, keeping my date to fly home.
Our very first date, if date one could call it, happened when I was dating another. The one, the other was away, far away in Africa, and there I was, nose to nose with him, dancing.
And then there was a second date which melted into a third and a forth and where one date ended and the next began is a blur. Sticky sweet like a box of dates. Simmered and heated up, heated through. Hot date.
He introduced me to North African cuisine, soups and stews and gelatinous, chewy loukoum, which left a trail of powdered sugar down my chin and shirt, the sweet stickiness of rose and orange on my front teeth. We would wander through the streets of Paris, the neighborhood of shops overflowing with North African goods, shiny gold hookahs, stacks of colorful baboush slippers and leather poofs, footstools of skins smelling like camels. Traditional filagree lamps, intricate and feminine, that would throw delicate ethereal shapes on the walls in hazy pinks, blues and yellows, the colors of the glass panes. And food shops filled with traditional terra cotta tagine pots in rich gorgeous jade, blue, orange, red next to ingredients and canned foods, spices and boxes of couscous grains.
And dates. Yes, we could find the small, slender dates sticky with sugar, but not only. I discovered long branches of dull dates, matte brown rather than shiny, dates not candied, withered not slick and glossy. And fat dates, plumper and more tender than even those I knew. Red dates, Chinese dates the color of sundried tomatoes, like odd little olives more than dates. And Medjool dates, the queen of dates, tremendously, astonishingly large. Astonishingly melt-in-your-mouth tender and sweet, sweet as cake. Dates not only to be eaten just like that, like candy, but dates to be cooked, simmered into stews, dates and apricots, prunes and raisins, walnuts and almonds. Simmered and stewed.
Well before our first date, my husband spent two years living and working in Morocco; he spent much of his spare time hanging out in the kitchen of the house in which he boarded watching the women cook. Since we married, couscous and tagines have been a part of our repertoire, cooked and eaten at least once a week. Personally, I prefer tagines, lamb, beef, chicken or fish, with some kind of fresh or dried fruit adding sweetness to the dish. Dates, widely used in Moroccan cuisine and commonly found in tagines, pair beautifully with lamb. The sweet potatoes give added sweetness and depth to the dish while the mint perfumes it gently and intriguingly.
JAMIE’S LAMB TAGINE WITH DATES, SWEET POTATOES & MINT
Serves 2 – 4
The sweet potatoes can be replaced by large chunks of pumpkin and the Medjool dates can be replaced with any tender, sweet date. If using pumpkin, feel free to add fingerling potatoes or serve the dish over couscous grains.
21 oz (600 g) lamb shoulder cut in large cubes
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic peeled and sliced in half
About ¼ tsp turmeric or saffron powder
1 Tbs ras el hanout or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 large Medjool dates
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 21 oz / 600 g), peeled and cut into thick wedges
1 small juice orange
1 Tbs chopped or snipped fresh mint
In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 2 tablespoons margarine or butter and 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Cook the chopped onion and the garlic clove in the hot oil until the onion is tender and translucent then add the lamb, tossing to coat with the oil and onion bits, and cook until the lamb is browned on all sides. Salt and pepper, add the ras el hanout and saffron powder and toss the lamb to coat. Pour about ½ cup water in the pot and stir up to dissolve the spices and deglaze the bottom of the pot. Add the sweet potato wedges and the juice of the orange, add more water to cover the lamb and potatoes about ¾ the way up. Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 30 minutes or a bit more. The lamb should be cooked through and tender. Add the dates, simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stir the chopped mint into the tagine and add a couple tablespoons of slivered almonds if you like. Serve hot.