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Today: Why the laziest appetizers are always best, especially the 3-ingredient snack you should serve at your Oscar party.
Appetizers don't have to be much to be perfect. The best ones require nothing more than plating: a platter of olives, or cured meats and cheeses, or whole radishes with butter and salt. These are what people really want to eat before dinner.
An ideal pre-meal meal should be inherently pretty (without having to form any sort of ball or log), and dramatic enough in flavor and texture to prod your appetite. It should be bite-sized, communal, and inviting of conversation ("Are these from the salami of the month club?" "Did I ever tell you about the first time I dipped radishes in butter?" and so on.) Olives will do.
Appetizers like these are a free pass, and we might as well take it. Because when we don't have to mix and mold and garnish or keep anything crisp, we can focus on the rest of the evening -- whether that's a multi-stage dinner party, or just sitting around the TV clinking coupes and missing Joan Rivers.
Renee Erickson's sautéed dates are one of these effortless treats, but also have the benefit of being entirely unexpected (go conversation go!). Dates don't need to be stuffed with anything or wrapped in bacon to be a convincing appetizer -- they just need a little framing.
On their own, dates can be almost too sweet, which is why many of us rarely think of them at all, or blend them up into breads or shakes as a natural sweetener. But once harnessed with a little salt, the sugar stops being overwhelming and the winey, butterscotch-y nuances become clear. We're familiar here with salting in the form of bacon or goat cheese, but it could also just be salt.
At Erickson's flagship restaurant Boat Street Cafe, she serves them just like this: unstuffed, unwrapped. After heating quickly in a pan with olive oil, the hot, fat dates are plated with the puddle of oil they were cooked in, plus lots of jagged salt crystals. You eat the dates with your hands -- the salted skins have tightened and turned to caramel in patches; the centers have gone molten. Then you find bread to mop up the warm oil lingering at the bottom of the bowl.
Though they're a sound match for a bubbly drink, Molly Wizenberg likes to eat them over yogurt for breakfast. You could also pit and chop them first and add them to salad or even scrambled or fried eggs, a comforting Middle Eastern breakfast.
But my favorite riff is how my friend Nozlee Samadzadeh served them at a dinner party celebrating the recipes celebrated by Wizenberg on Orangette. Nozlee pitted the dates before sautéing them, then spilled them and their oil over a pool of Greek yogurt that had been thinned with more olive oil. It was a thing of beauty, cool yogurt against warm dates and everywhere good oil and salt, that we were able to sweep up all together with slices of baguette. And sweep them all up we did.
Adapted slightly from A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus (Sasquatch Books, 2014)
Serves as many as you like
Sharp extra-virgin olive oil
Dates, unpitted (count on 4 to 5 per person as an appetizer)
Flaky sea salt
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Photos by Mark Weinberg