Goat Cheese-Pistachio Stuffed Dates

Have you noticed that the size of appetizers has exploded like our waistlines? There was a time when hors d’oeuvres were merely one- to two-bite savory morsels eaten before a meal, often with an aperitif or cocktail. Today it’s not uncommon to be presented with enough hors d’oeuvres that we’re full before it’s actually time to eat. But this goes beyond our super-size eating habits in general. I think it’s more about not understanding the intention. I’m not advocating that we return to an earlier era where conformity was the norm, but it would be nice for people in the profession to understand the purpose of an hors d’oeuvre and take it upon themselves to educate the public on proper courses, serving sizes, and serving sequence.

As a hostess, one must consider the convenience of an appetizer as well. Common sense tells us that if you’re hosting a standing-room-only cocktail party, plates and utensils are not only unnecessary, but also hazardous. Hors d’oeuvres should only be one-bite morsels. Only casual gatherings with ample seating and table space can accommodate larger size appetizers and plates. Considering your guests before yourself and your urge to make your favorite appetizer or a lusted-after recipe is the best way to approach entertaining.

I am just as guilty as the next person for not always planning according to an occasion, sometimes considering a dish because I like it or it’s convenient to make as opposed to what is most comfortable for guests, and my recent recipe for stuffed dates was a reminder of an appetizer done right.

My recipe for Goat Cheese-Pistachio Stuffed Dates was inspired by cookbook author Jennie Schacht. She brought a similar version at the recent butter tasting I attended and hers reminded me of what a great hors d’oeuvre stuffed dates are. There are several versions of them on Project Foodie, many using bacon. The combination of bacon, dates, and cheese is pure heaven to me. My version is more Eastern in flavors since I use orange flower water. I love to have this exotic flavoring on hand for moments like this when you just need that special something to take a recipe to another place. Enjoy!

Goat Cheese-Pistachio Stuffed Dates

Dates are one of those essential pantry staples. Perfect for pre-workouts, they are loaded with carbs for endurance. Add to a smoothie or your morning oatmeal. Dates are also great for last-minute desserts and a great way to add natural sweetness to crumb toppings in cobblers and cookies.

20 Medjool dates

1/4 cup shelled salted pistachios

1/2 cup loose-packed basil leaves

5 oz. goat cheese, softened to room temperature

2 tsp. orange flower water

1. With a small paring knife, split open to top of each date and remove pit; set aside.

2. Chop pistachios and place in a small mixing bowl.

3. Rinse and dry basil leaves, chop, and add to pistachios. Add goat cheese and orange flower water and mix thoroughly.

4. Stuff each date with about a teaspoon full of cheese mixture, holding the date between your fingers and gently squeezing the ends so that it opens where the pit was removed.

5. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate up to a day ahead.

Best Tasting Butter

A few of us brave souls from the San Francisco Professional Food Society sat down the other night and tasted an assortment of unsalted butters. In the name of research, we worked our way through nine brands, mostly eating them alone, with the occasional bite of an Acme baguette. Without the distraction of labels or price points, we tasted and scored based on appearance, texture, and flavor. Being such a perishable product, there were a couple of imported butters that tasted off, probably due to improper storage or too much time in the refrigerator case. They were also the most expensive, one being a brand from France that was $8.39 for a half pound. But it’s unfair to call them out because as a former retailer myself, the variables of selling an imported perishable are many and the hazards unavoidable.

So I’d like to give a shout out to the brands we did like.

1st place went to none other than Clover Stornetta Sweet Cream Butter. Hubby and I have always been big Clover fans and only used them as our dairy supplier in every grocery we’ve owned. We’ve always believed in their product, their standards, and their service. Tasters found the butter to be pure, sweet, with a clean taste.

There was a tie for 2nd place. Whole Foods 365 Unsalted Butter and Kerrygold Unsalted Butter both won tasters over. Funny how the two least expensive butters came in 1st and 2nd. Something to think about. Kerrygold was a beautiful golden butter with a slightly softer texture. It also had a lovely nutty flavor.

3rd place went to a French butter, Pamplie. This butter is protected with an Appelation of Controlled Origin (AOC) designation, which means that certain standards are adhered to regarding the milk and resulting butter production. So for Pamplie, only certain dairy co-operatives designated in the county of Deux Sevres, in Gatine are used for the manufacturing of this butter. Tasters found this butter to be full-flavored, nutty, and rich.

If anything, the little tasting proved that butter is a complex product for the consumer. Questions about cultured versus non-cultured and European versus European-style came up and we wished we had a butter expert on hand. And then the dilemma of which butter to cook with, especially for pastry and cakes came up as well. Our organizer, Jill Hough, did bake off a few pastry samples and the one with salted butter beat out those that used shortening and heavy cream.

So the next time you’re shopping for a solid-tasting table butter, save yourself some money and reach for either Clover or Whole Foods house brand. Maybe Whole Foods house brand is Clover?

Fish Sauce and Its Implications

I admit that I as I grow older I’m developing an aversion to foods and smells less familiar to me, yet my tolerance levels for other things has grown. I’m sure we all know someone who has ventured in the opposite direction, becoming increasing intolerant of others and differing beliefs. Then there are those that have lived a mostly moderate life, stuck in the middle of every type of spectrum. Not so much ruffled by opposing beliefs and keeping an open mind on the outside while harboring the murmurs of conflict within. Those are the type of people that can go either way, like a swinging pendulum, unpredictably dangerous or delightfully surprising. I’m like a pendulum then.

Over a year ago I entered a Thai restaurant and had to bolt. Was it the peanut sauce permeating throughout the small dining room? I really don’t know. Then I tried to enjoy Dim Sum a few months ago, but couldn’t get past the exotic aromas circling around me in a continuous taunt like a schoolyard game. So tonight I challenged myself and decided to open my newly purchased bottle of fish sauce to prepare a recipe for sticky ribs. As they cooked in the oven, the brown sugar, soy and fish sauce caramelizing to a deep brown glaze, the odor was enough to send me outside. If there was any question about what fish sauce smells like, just look at the ingredient list: anchovies. Worried that others in the house would pick up on the scent and react as I did, I doused the ribs in bottled hickory barbecue sauce. After a bit more time in the oven, everyone devoured them and no one was the wiser.

My pendulum continues to swing, but I’m quite content with the direction.

Australian Olive Oil

When friend and fellow food writer Peggy Fallon invited me to a press event for Australian olive oil, I immediately jumped at the chance to sample one of my favorite ingredients. The event was held at CAV Wine Bar and Kitchen in San Francisco. After making our way into the City on a cold and rainy evening, we were warmly greeted at this dimly lit cavern-like establishment. CAV’s hipper-than-me ambiance spilled out the door as we ducked inside, and we were happy to be out of the elements. We quickly dried off and were ready to sample Cobram Estate olive oil along with CAV’s selection of accompanying small bites and wine. Chef John Maher prepared several different tapas utilizing the different blends of olive oil from Cobram Estate. Delicious offerings included olive oil poached salmon, braised fennel, and sea salt using Cobram’s Fresh and Fruity blend; pan-seared duck breast with caramelized Cara Cara oranges using Cobram’s Rich and Robust blend; and an olive oil cake with toasted coconut and chocolate ganache using Cobram’s Lemon Twist infused olive oil. CAV’s owner Pamela Busch hand-picked wines from Australia’s Victoria wine region including some older vintages such as a delicious 2001 Yeringberg Pinot Noir and an equally delicious 2001 Yarra Yering ‘Underhill’ Shiraz. Australian food expert Sally James led us on a crash course of Victoria’s Murray River olive growing region and introduced each course and corresponding olive oil.

It’s fair to say that Cobram Estate has a pretty good market position. It was recently named Australia’s “best” olive oil while also being named Australia’s largest olive oil producer. They definitely don’t need little old me spreading the word. And I will be honest and say that I didn’t find their olive oil necessarily complex or delicious. Definitely usable and enjoyable and a suitable everyday oil to have on hand, but not the specialty oil that you covet and only use for special guests or recipes. But I do appreciate their marketing approach. They have several blends of olive oil and devised an easy-to-understand classification for many who find olive oil and its nuances confusing. Cobram separates their oils into two retail categories: premium and everyday. We sampled the everyday blends: light and delicate, fresh and fruity, and rich and robust. As the names (and color) suggest, the lighter the oil the lighter the flavor. I found the rich and robust the only one I would seek out since it’s closest to the Cretan olive oil that I use on a daily basis. Their infused oils (Garlic Crush, Lemon Twist, Chili Blast) are great and I would purchase them.

It is unfortunate that we didn’t get to sample their premium line since those blends would be more in line with what we food writers and food bloggers are more in tune with and probably more enthusiastic to report on. It’s the difference between sampling Bertoli and Lerida. But their positioning for America’s mass market should serve them well. The everyday blends are or will soon be available at many national supermarket chains including Railey’s and Nob Hill Foods, Lucky’s, and Save Mart and retail around $10 for a 750 ml size.

As far as CAV, I would definitely return. Maybe it was the rain, but CAV and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar where we later dined definitely have the moody atmosphere down, filled with 20- and 30-somethings that had me feeling enough out of place to head back home to the comforts of the Peninsula.