Every once in a while, I’ll order something at a restaurant that’s so wildly delicious, yet apparently so simple, that I’m immediately determined to recreate it at home. This dish is one of those.
Like many of my favorite food travel memories, this one happened in Barcelona. Towards the end of our stay, Sam and I decided to visit the Mercat del Born, only to discover when we got there that it was closed for renovations. Suddenly loose in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with lunchtime looming, we ducked into an upscale-looking place with the auspicious name Cafe Kafka. It was dim and calculatedly deco inside, with a floor-to-ceiling bar and a dining room outfitted in black and grey. Three words jumped off the appetizers list at me: almejas con alcachofas. Clams with artichokes. Two of my favorite foods. I couldn’t resist.
It arrived in a teeny-tiny cast iron pot: a cluster of yawning clam shells, perched on a pile of baby artichokes. The clams were chewy and lovely, as usual, but the artichokes were the real revelation–tooth-tender and almost buttery, drenched in the seawater-sweet liquor from the clams. The combination of lightly vegetal artichoke tang and garlicky salty broth made for even better bread-dunking than usual. I knew immediately I had to recreate it at home.
Unfortunately, I’m dating a bivalve-hater, so my clam experiment had to wait. But a couple weeks ago, when Sam was busy and I was tapped to make an early birthday dinner for my mom, I saw my chance. It turns out that making clams with artichokes is a little more complex than just steaming clams on top of artichokes, but not by much. It’s quick, deceptively simple, and special enough for an Occasion. Good crusty bread is absolutely not negotiable here–every drop of that sweet-salty-tangy potion at the bottom of the bowl should be savored. This may require picking up the bowl and sipping the dregs.
One of my favorite stands at the local farmer’s market sells Medjool dates. They’re enormous, plush and sticky and sweet as candy, so rich that you can’t eat more than one or two at a time. The most popular dates at the stand are the freshest ones: soft, pillowy and priced for a splurge. But I prefer the older, firmer dates–not just because they’re cheaper, but because they’re ideal for stuffing with cheese and wrapping in prosciutto.
I’m a sucker for salty-sweet things, and these scratch my itch every time. There’s nothing quite like tangy cheese, sugary fruit and fatty, salty ham all mashed into one perfectly-sized bite. They’re quick to put together–if you don’t mind a bit of assembly-line work–and make the perfect entrance at a party. Give me one or two of these morsels and a glass of dry rose wine, and I’m a happy girl.
Most stuffed dates in the world have goat cheese inside them. This is where I push away from tradition. I adore goat cheese, but it’s just not my favorite date filling–it’s too soft and malleable, no contrast at all against the gooey stickiness of the fruit. Instead, I like to use cubes of Parmesan or another firm, aged cheese: the sharpness cuts right through through the sweetness of the dates, but the cheese still has enough chew to stand up to the fruit around it. And then, of course, aged cheese is a natural partner for the thin layer of prosciutto holding everything together.
These are delicious just-assembled, at room temperature. In the sweltering height of summer, there’s no need to do anything more. But if you can stand to, try running them under the broiler until the cheese melts and the ham starts to shrink in on itself. At room temperature, the dates are subtle and layered; warmed through, they’re butter-rich and decadent. Your call.
Well, not unbearable. In fact, pretty damn appealing.
Fact is, there are days when I feel compelled to do fancy things with food. And then there are days when it’s ungodly hot outside, and I’m staring down the Workweek from Hell, and standing over the stove with an elaborate plan and a spatula sounds like torture.
Guess which kind of day I’ve been having lately?