Moroccan Dates

by Linda Shiue
In her autobiographical novel, Hideous Kinky (1992), British novelist Esther Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund, writes from the perspective of her six-year-old self of the time she spent in 1960s Marrakech, Morocco.  She lived there with her elder sister, Bella, and mother, Julia, who journeyed there on a quest for fulfillment and enlightenment, after leaving behind her husband and their upper crust London life.  To Esther, this was an exciting time, but she wished for a father.  Her elder sister, precociously pragmatic, longed instead for structure and an education.  Morocco through Esther’s six-year-old eyes is a confusing swirl of exotic color, music, and mysticism.  Kate Winslet stars as her mother in the 1998 film adaptation by the same name.  She and the young actors portraying her daughters convincingly convey the excitement and disorientation of living in a completely different world.
Like a good book or film, a good restaurant can also transport you to another place and time.  Baraka,  a sadly defunct Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco I frequented around the same time as Hideous Kinky‘s screen debut, did just that.  Although it was located in a nondescript storefront on the ground level of a Victorian in one of San Francisco’s famously hilly neighborhoods, for the time you were there, you could imagine yourself in Morocco.  You entered through heavy red velvet curtains, which successfully created both ambience and a shield from the wind just outside the door.  Inside, small tables were spaced closely together, and if you were lucky to get one of the corner banquettes, you were cushioned by silk upholstered pillows in jewel tones, sewn with golden thread.  The light was appealingly dim, made dynamic by flickering candlelight.  The attractive waitstaff, whose ethnicities ranged from European to Asian to Middle Eastern to African, all spoke in convincing French-accented English.  I never knew if they were actually from Francophone countries or if their accents were for show, but their alluring speech added to the feeling that you might just be in Morocco.
It was at Baraka that I tasted my first tagines, those lovely stews sweetened by fruits and aromatic with sweet and savory spices, including cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric and cumin.  But the menu item I missed most when Baraka closed was the must-have appetizer, dates filled with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon.  I’ve recreated these here in memory of the Moroccan restaurant I miss and the dreamy images of Morocco depicted in Hideous Kinky.  These dates are neither hideous nor kinky (the title refers to a phrase Esther Freud and her sister used whenever they encountered anything they found strange), but I won’t judge you if your date is.  I think you’ll find this to be an exotic, voluptuous, and stylish appetizer to serve to your holiday guests.  Red velvet curtains and French accents optional.
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Gorgonzola and Bacon Dates

gorgonzola and bacon dates by Linda Shiue
Neither hideous nor kinky, these are an exotic appetizer sure the get your party started.  They are simple to prepare and can be assembled in advance and baked just before serving, ideal for your busy party planning.  They can also be made vegetarian by omitting the bacon and reducing baking time to 10 minutes.  Either way, these are handheld bites that just explode with flavor and texture.  What other appetizer can promise you sweet, savory, salty, smoky and creamy flavors along with chewy and crisp textures, all in the same mouthful? I can’t think of another.

Yield: 12 pieces
Ingredients
12 Medjool dates
2 oz gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
6 slices of thick-cut bacon, sliced in half width-wise
Technique
1. Make a vertical slit on one side of each date (do not cut all the way through) and remove the pit.
2.  Place a few crumbles of gorgonzola into the pocket you’ve created in each date, then carefully re-seal the opening after filling.
gorgonzola stuffed dates by Linda Shiue
3.  Wrap a half-slice of bacon around each filled date, overlapping on the bottom, keeping the cut side of the date up so the cheese doesn’t ooze out. Secure with a toothpick if desired.  These can be baked immediately or wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated until you’re ready for your guests to arrive.
4.  Place each wrapped date on a rimmed baking sheet.
5.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 25 minutes, until bacon is crisp and cheese is oozy.
6.  Transfer with tongs to a plate lined with several layers of paper towels to absorb excess grease.
7.  Enjoy hot.
© 2010 Linda Shiue
A version of this was published December 20, 2010 on Salon.com.
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