I’m sorry. How is it only January 21? With as much as I’ve had going on at work since January 2, it feels like it could be May already. Sheesh.
Luckily, I’ve still had a few moments of fun in those harried three weeks. In fact, the weekend after New Year’s my family, and friends who are family, reconvened for a celebration: my uncle Jim’s 70th birthday. The weather gods were with us, because it was a clear — if crisp — evening for a party.
In the fall and winter, during months with an R in them, it is tradition in the Lowcountry — the area of South Carolina stretching from Charleston through Beaufort and Hilton Head Island to Savannah — to have an oyster roast. It’s a backyard, wear your jeans and relaxed clothes kind of occasion. We always do a mini oyster roast on Christmas Eve, but oyster roasts in general are the soirees of choice for almost any fall and holiday get-together in that area.
The oysters are usually harvested locally, sometimes even directly from the river 10 feet away. They aren’t to be washed, since the briny marsh mud “seasons” them as they cook. (Let’s just not think about that part.) I’ve never done the roasting myself, but I understand that the oysters are shoveled onto and layered between water-soaked burlap sacks and left to steam over an open fire until they open. That’s one way to do it, at least. At our gathering, I think a proper steamer was involved.
You may be thinking at this point that oysters are disgusting. Slimy, salty, mucousy, revolting. I don’t disagree with you. Oysters are not my go-to seafood or shellfish of choice, but somehow I can handle them at an oyster roast. For one, they’re cooked, which greatly improves the texture. And the bit of work you have to do to break into one means the reward is that much sweeter.
Once the oysters come off the fire, everyone gathers around large wooden tables. My uncle, of course, has his own oyster pit in the backyard. The tables are outfitted with the necessary tools and accompaniments: gloves for handling the sharp shells, oyster knives for prying them open, cocktail sauce and/or butter for dipping. The oyster master comes by and dumps a load of oysters on the table. Then it’s a free for all. We gather and commune at the tables, grabbing shells, twisting them open, cutting out the sweet oyster, dipping and eating. It’s absolutely primal, but also decadent.
My uncle Jim enjoys oysters, which is most interesting because it’s one of about five foods he eats. Case in point, many of his birthday gifts contained the triumvirate way to his heart: red wine, peanut butter and Diet Coke. So when we find something he enjoys, we have to take special note. I stumbled on such a selection last Christmas, when he complimented me on my stuffed dates. He actually said, “I could sit in the corner and just eat those all night.” Score. I served them again at Christmas this year, but then made another batch in his honor for the party.
I stuffed my dates with gorgonzola and pecans then wrapped them in prosciutto, baked them until crispy and served them with a balsamic vinegar reduction. That sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Well, the process is a bit time consuming, but they are so easy. And they’re sure to impress. Trust me, they go quickly.
1 package large, pitted dates (can also use Medjool dates)
This recipe is very customizable to the size gathering you’re having. So, buy as many dates as you think you need. I used half of a pecan half (okay, a fourth of a pecan) and a fourth of a slice of prosciutto per stuffed, rolled date. You can source accordingly.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Spread the nuts in one layer on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for about 5 minutes, just to toast them. Let them cool and cut each piece in half lengthwise. (If you’re using almond slivers, that’s probably not necessary.)
Cut one side of the date so that it opens like a pocket. If you cut all the way through, no biggie. The cheese will make the two halves stick together. Insert one piece of pecan, then stuff in a bit of the Gorgonzola — not too much, just enough to fill the inside.
Lay out a piece of prosciutto and cut it into fourths. Wrap one piece around your date and secure it with a toothpick.
Grease a baking sheet lightly with cooking spray or oil, and place your date on it. Repeat.
Bake at 350° F for 10 minutes, just until the prosciutto is a little crispy and the cheese is melted.
For the sauce:
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
In a saucepan, combine the vinegar and honey. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce to medium and simmer for five minutes, or until the vinegar has reduced by half. You want a syrupy consistency, so simmer it as long as it needs. To test, dip a spoon in, turn it over and run your finger through the sauce (carefully; it’s hot!). If the line your finger made stays, it’s thick enough. Just beware that the sauce will thicken as it cools, so take it off the heat a little earlier than you think. And don’t get too close while it’s boiling — that vinegar lets off some noxious fumes, whew!
To serve, you can drizzle or spread the sauce on the plate and place the dates on top. Or drizzle it over the dates once they’re arranged on the plate.