Chef’s In: A Date With Destiny

As usual, I’d like to begin with a story. Typically these tales are an indirect play on our featured food. They also frequently involve a short narrative about my hilarious grandmother or my extraordinary cat, Olive. Most importantly, these anecdotes leave you curious and hungry for more. They also raise the age old question—Fanny, what in the world are you talking about?

That being said, let’s discuss The Ugly Duckling. In this classic literary fairy tale, we are presented with a homely little bird who sticks out from the crowd. He bears no resemblance to his family and is constantly picked on by others. In the end, he transforms into a swan—the most beautiful bird of all. This story represents the timeless lesson that you can’t judge a book by its cover. It also reminds us that something unattractive can truly be wonderful on the inside. So with that, my friends, I give you… Dates.

No, I did not just agree to go out with you. But I will gladly share my affection for nature’s only naturally dried fruit. For starters, unlike all of the other colorful fruits out there that contain 75-95% moisture—these wrinkly brown characters boast less than 30% moisture. Hmm, a wrinkly brown character. Sound familiar? Although dates may be considered the Ugly Duckling of fruit, they are certainly still esteemed for their other marvelous qualities.

Not only are dates versatile enough to work in both sweet and savory dishes, but because they’re substantially less acidic than most other fruits—they don’t alter the characteristics of the other ingredients they’re mixed with. Way to go, you goofy little champions. You may not think of this sweet, funny looking dried fruit as being the star of the show, but I’m here to change that. I recruited some of Wilmington’s top kitchen masterminds and requested their finest date pointers. Once they all realized I wasn’t hitting on them, they were happy to share their inspired recipes. And before I knew it, the Ugly Duckling had become a swan. Or at least a tin-foil shaped swan with delicious leftovers inside.

As usual, I’d like to begin with a drink. When fumbling through your liquor cabinet in pursuit of a novel concoction, you probably didn’t reach for dried fruit. However, once Ian Murray of Manna served up the recipe for his Mountain Genie cocktail—I was suddenly blinded by the beauty of dates. This blind date, as most should, includes moonshine and a twist. Not the kind of twist where it turns out you’re about to have dinner with your second cousin. We’re talking lemons here, people. Dates are organically full of sugar and the grain alcohol extracts every bit of their natural sweetness. Pair that with some citrus and you have the ultimate fusion of flavors. Cheers Manna, you’ve done it again.

Typically, a cheesy date is something you want to avoid. However, Kymberlei DiNapoli of The Olive Café knows better. She uses her extravagant infused oils and vinegars to manifest a two-bite appetizer you’ll hope will last forever. A tangy, herbaceous goat cheese blend is piped into a chewy date—which is then, in her words, “cuddled in prosciutto and kissed with chocolate balsamic.”

Active ImageThere are two reasons I love being the food writer for Focus on the Coast. One, I may or may not occasionally name drop and receive complimentary cinnamon rolls downtown at brunch. But most importantly, I have the treat of directly communicating with chefs and restaurant owners for their valuable insight into unique ingredients. When I turned to one of Front Street’s hottest wine bars for their take on a date-friendly salad, The Fortunate Glass brilliantly turned this first course on its head. Chef Will Laughinghouse elevates ordinary chicken salad with sweet, chewy dates and a light Greek-yogurt based dressing.

Chef Tiffany Eslien of Hops Supply Co. knows better. She stuffs Majool Dates—valued for their impressive size, chewy texture, and extraordinary sweetness—with smoky Gouda and wraps them with salty bacon. Topped off with her sticky balsamic and passion fruit puree, these cheesy dates make for an evening to remember.

As a finale to this date extravaganza, Pastry Chef Joy Lewis of East Oceanfront Dining brings down the house with her Warm Haroseth. Many of you may think you just spotted a typo. However, somewhere in a small Jewish New Jersey town far, far away—my grandmother is cheering. Haroseth is a traditional Jewish dish that consists of chopped nuts, apples, wine and spices. In her modernized version, Chef Joy adds a tangy goat cheese maple mousse that tastes as luscious as it sounds. If that wasn’t enough to make Passover come early this year, she serves the whole thing in a buttery sweet potato bowl. Mazel tov! There you have it. A four-course meal manifested entirely from one wrinkly little fruit.

And with that, our date has come to a close. I’d say we all got lucky. Cheers, Wilmington.

The Fortunate Glass
Chef Will Laughinghouse
Organic Chicken Salad with Dates

2½ Cups chopped cooked
¼ Cup diced red onion
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 Cup halved grapes
¼ Cup dried dates
¼ Cup Greek yogurt
¼ Tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Serve over a bed of arugula dressed with a toasted sesame vinaigrette and fresh rosemary garnish.

Ian Murray
Mountain Genie

2 ounces Troy & Sons
Oak Reserve moonshine
1 ounce Lillet blanc
1 ounce Drambuie
½ ounce lemon juice
¼ ounce homemade
date tincture

Date Tincture: To make, soak a small jar of dates in grain
alcohol overnight, shaking every hour or so.

Combine the ingredients above over ice in a mixing glass,
stir for 30 seconds, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail
glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and fresh date.


Hops Supply Co.

Chef Tiffany Eslien
Smoked Gouda Stuffed Majool Dates

Serves 4-6
Majool Dates, pitted
(12 each)
6 ounces smoked Gouda
bacon strips (6 each)
¾ Cup balsamic vinegar
½ Cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons passion
fruit puree
1 quart vegetable oil)

Stuff the dates in the center with a cube of smoked
Gouda. Wrap dates with raw bacon, covering the
opening of the date. Pick with a toothpick.

In a small saucepan place sugar and balsamic vinegar in
a pot and bring to a low simmer until sauce reduces by
half and a thick syrup is formed. Remove from heat and
add the passion fruit puree. Passion fruit juice will work
as well. Add an extra 2 Tablespoons and place in the
pot at the same time with the vinegar and sugar. Heat oil
to 350*F. Fry dates in oil until bacon is crispy. Let cool.
Drizzle dates with the glaze.