- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On separate occasions during the past few weeks, I have tasted two stunning appetizers. Both were simple yet sophisticated, and each was composed of unexpected but complementary flavors.

You might think that I sampled these delectable starters in a restaurant, but both were served by home cooks.

While we were in Paris last month, friends invited us for wine and appetizers. The generous spread included foie gras served with dried apricots, bowls of toasted nuts and olives, and the dish that caught my eye: crisp toasts topped with smoked salmon, thinly sliced avocado and red grapefruit segments.

The French host couldn’t wait until we tried the salmon, and after one bite, I understood why.

The salty smokiness of the fish, the creaminess of the avocado, and the bracing accent of citrus formed a delicious trio. I asked our hostess where she had gotten the idea for the dish. She said at the market. Her local market sells all manner of seasonal fare, and she had turned that week’s purchases into these colorful nibbles.

Back home in New England, I attended a meeting of my book club. It was a cold day, and our host had prepared a variety of treats to stave off the chill. There was a platter of cheeses, raspberry shortbreads and spiced pecans, but it was the warm stuffed dates that got everyone’s attention.

This host had filled beautiful medjool dates with blue cheese, added a sprinkle of chopped almonds, then popped them in the oven for a few minutes until the cheese was melted.

The sweetness of the dates set off by the saltiness of the cheese was a heavenly combination, but the dish’s uniqueness was that the dates were served warm rather than at room temperature.

When I asked about the recipe, she said that she had tasted warm stuffed dates at a restaurant in Maine, then created her own version.

When entertaining, appetizers are often the hardest part of the menu for me to choose. I don’t have a lot of time to fuss over them, but I want my savory treats to make a good first impression.

These two starters are going into my permanent repertoire, for they meet all my criteria: They’re easy, original and definitely memorable.

Ann’s warm dates stuffed with blue cheese and almonds

12 medium medjool dates (available in most supermarkets)

4 ounces blue cheese, such as Maytag blue, at room temperature

2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped (see note)

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Have ready a medium size baking pan or dish.

Slice the dates lengthwise, cutting (not all the way through) just enough to remove the pits. Fill the cavities of the dates with about ½ teaspoon blue cheese. Save extra cheese for another use. Sprinkle dates with chopped almonds and arrange in the baking pan.

The dates can be prepared 3 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

Bake dates until warm and cheese has melted, about 8 minutes. Remove and arrange on a small serving plate or place them in a long, narrow olive tray. Serve warm. Makes 12 dates, or 4 to 6 servings.

Note: To toast almonds, arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread almonds on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly browned, about 5 to 6 minutes for sliced almonds. Watch carefully so nuts do not burn. Remove and cool.

Marie Claire’s smoked salmon, avocado and red grapefruit toasts

12 baguette slices, cut 3/8 inch thick

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra if needed

1 small red grapefruit

1 ripe but not mushy avocado

Juice of 1 small lemon

4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon

Salt, optional

12 flat leaf parsley leaves for the garnish

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush bread on both sides with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake until golden and just crisp, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove and cool.

Toasts can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Cover loosely with foil and leave at room temperature.

Using a sharp knife, cut a thick slice from each end of the grapefruit. Stand grapefruit upright on a cutting board, and starting at the top, slice downward following the contour of the fruit, cutting away all of the skin and all of the white pith beneath. Cut between the membranes to release the grapefruit segments.

Halve the avocado lengthwise; pit, peel and slice thinly. Toss avocado slices gently with lemon juice in a shallow bowl.

Arrange a smoked salmon slice (cut to fit) on top of each toast. Top with 1 to 2 avocado slices, then with a grapefruit segment.

If desired, sprinkle each toast lightly with fleur de sel. Garnish each serving with a parsley leaf. Arrange on a serving plate; serve immediately.

Makes 12 toasts or 4 to 6 servings.


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