There you have it

On December 31st, 2011, I sent my friend Molly a text:  I’m having a salad vision.

It looked like this:

(Minus the feet.)

Butter lettuce, toasted walnuts, fresh ricotta, and sautéed dates for our New Year’s Eve dinner that night. The list of ingredients is more or less the recipe today, so there you have it, but I do want to talk to you for just a moment about the dates. I can’t stop thinking about them.

The dates are where my salad vision began. Specifically, with the sautéed dates and yogurt that I ate for breakfast at Sitka and Spruce in Seattle last May. I’d been meaning to recreate the dish, but I hadn’t yet gotten around to it, and it suddenly occurred to me that sautéed dates might be equally at home at dinner, maybe with cheese instead of yogurt, and some greens on the side. It would be a plated salad. We'd toss the lettuce with a vinegary dressing, sauté the dates in olive oil, and lay them over small heaps of ricotta. Molly was in, and in typical Molly fashion, she upped the ante. With butter. We should sauté the dates in butter. Sing it, Molly.

Sautéing dates is a beautiful, beautiful thing. You roll them in a pan of hot, foaming butter and, once coated, leave them alone. The skin against the pan starts to caramelize, and after about a minute or so, you flip them, and let the other side do the same.  Just out of the pan, they gleam.  They're deep mahogany where they’ve taken the most heat, more candy in places than fruit.  Like toffee-in-the-making at the hard-ball stage.

Dress the greens, top with walnuts; spoon the ricotta, top with dates. A vision. Yep.

Sautéed Dates with Ricotta and Butter Lettuce
Inspired by breakfast at Sitka and Spruce, with help from the one and only Molly B.

I’ve called out butter lettuce in the title of this recipe since that was my original plan, but in the end I used part butter lettuce and part red leaf lettuce. Get whatever looks good. Just steer clear of the boxed and bagged lettuces and you’ll be fine. You’re welcome to use your own favorite vinaigrette for the dressing. You want something with enough of a vinegary bite to balance the sweetness on the other side of the plate. Simple is best. I went with oil and vinegar with a squirt of Dijon mustard and a few grinds of black pepper – no herbs or spices.

2 c. fresh ricotta (store bought – go for the good stuff – or make your own)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
12 Medjool dates
Maldon salt (optional)
2 medium heads of butter lettuce (or butter lettuce and red leaf lettuce, one head each)
1 c. walnuts

For the vinaigrette:
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (plus a little more if you decide to tone down the vinegar)
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 squirt (about ¼ tsp.) Dijon mustard (you can add more, if you want)
A few grinds of black pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them for about 7 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside.

Remove the lettuce leaves from the heads, gently wash them in cold water, spin dry, then lay them out on towels and leave them to finish drying. (If your kitchen is very hot, it’s best to lay them out somewhere else to prevent the leaves from wilting.)

Shake up the vinaigrette in an empty jar, or whisk it together in a bowl. Start with 6 tablespoons of olive oil, then taste it. If it’s too vinegary for you, add more oil, one teaspoon at a time, until you get something you like.

Spoon about a third of a cup of ricotta onto each plate. You’ll want to put it over to one side to leave room for the lettuce.

Slice the ends off of the dates and pull out their pits. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the dates. Let them sit undisturbed for about a minute, until their bottoms begin to caramelize and turn deep brown. Flip them, and leave them for another minute to do the same. Remove the dates to a plate when they’re done.

Toss the lettuce with the vinaigrette (less is more; you will most likely have extra dressing), and place a pile of leaves next to each heap of ricotta. Top the lettuce with the toasted walnuts and the cheese with the sautéed dates, two per plate. If you think of it, sprinkle a few flakes of Maldon salt on the dates. I meant to, but I forgot. Next time.

Serves 6.



Today is January 7th, 2012, which means that Sweet Amandine is three. It’s been kind of insane, hasn’t it? There was the brain thing, the baby thing, a summer in Berlin, a new apartment and construction projects galore, so(!) much(!) butter and sugar and flour. Whew. I’m so glad I’m here. I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you.

January feels like an honest to goodness starting line this year. I’ve got a couple of new projects on the drawing board, and while I’m not exactly sure what comes next, I’m excited. 2012 will be a year for working hard on things I care about. I’m really looking forward to that.

We had some friends over on New Year’s Eve to cook and to eat. That’s Steph up there grinding the pepper for the fennel and Molly working on the gnocchi. The blur all the way on the right is me. I’m making ricotta. We started the evening at 5pm, and instead of putting together the entire meal at once, we prepared one course at a time, gathering around the table to eat whenever the next round was up. It’s my new favorite way to do dinner.

Molly and I figured out the menu over e-mail and texts all week long. We decided to keep it simple, and I’m glad. The salad was butter lettuce in a mustardy vinaigrette, toasted walnuts, ricotta, and sautéed dates. Then, while Molly dropped her gnocchi into the pot and prepared a brown butter sage sauce, I caramelized the fennel and tossed it with the dill and garlic that Steph had chopped.

It was the best night.

We finished with bourbon balls, pear tarte Tatin, and a dance party in the living room.

(Champagne, too, of course.)

And then we found out that on New Year’s Eve, we can see fireworks from our living room. 2012, you're full of surprises already.

No shortage of recipes to share with you tonight, as you can see, but it’s late, so I’m going to sign off for now. I’ll be back soon with one or two from this meal.

Happy 2012.