My First Date and Italian Fall Fruit Conserve
I had my first date when I was a kid except I didn’t know I was eating a date. It was mashed together with marshmallows, coconut, and graham cracker crumbs in my mom’s no-bake coconut date balls–my least favorite of her cookies. When I was old enough to help mom with Christmas cookies, I got a behind-the-scenes look at the making of those date balls. I had no idea what a date was, where it came from, or what it looked like before it was all squeezed together in a cookie. When I asked mom for the dates, she handed me a sticky brown clump wrapped in plastic. “This is a date?” I asked as I accepted the hand-off.
“No, those are dates,” she said, emphasizing the “s” that turned “date” into a plural noun. I unwrapped the log and pinched off a taste lured by the color reminiscent of chocolate. The date goo was sweet with an unfamiliar bitterness. It wasn’t horrible, but I didn’t sneak a second taste. Enough said.
In my 20s, long after I’d learned that mom’s date log was made up of dozens of chopped dates, I discovered Medjool dates in the produce aisle at the grocery store. They were huge, nearly the size of an apricot. Sandwiched between avocados and lemons, the glossy brown skins of those dates coupled with my insatiable curiosity about food made them impossible to resist. I pulled one from the bag and bit into it before I left the parking lot. Ouch! Lesson one: dates have pits. Lesson two: Medjool dates taste like candy. It was sweet and rich with a mouthfeel that reminded me of soft fudge. It was love at first bite.
A decade later Greg returned home from a business trip to Dubai with a large box of chocolates for me. The ornate gold box was tied with yards of purple silk ribbon that promised these were no ordinary chocolates. Indeed, they weren’t chocolates at all, but rather a selection of glossy, unblemished dates. Each delicate confection was nestled in its own golden chamber within the box. Some were filled with almonds. Others had their pits replaced with slices of candied orange or ginger. They felt like a marshmallow between my fingers. And they tasted like caramel, only better. For a month, those dates consumed my thoughts. I tried desperately to ration them, dreading the day when I would see the bottom of the empty box.
Another decade passes. Now I’m forty-one, standing in a fruit market in the heart of Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani community, waiting for a store employee to return with news about their fig supply. For two years I’ve been waiting to play with a recipe for an Italian fruit and nut jam known as Côgnà. With lots of juicy pears from Greg’s grandma’s tree waiting at home, all I needed were a few pints of figs.
I wait eagerly in front of the empty shelf with the sign, “fresh figs, $1.99 a pint.” It’s Sunday afternoon and the market is bustling with women in brilliant saris. I move about trying to stay out of the way and instead bump into an old man standing in front of a bin heaping with golden fruits the size of giant grapes, but oblong in shape. Many of the fruits are still attached to willowy brown branches. I excuse myself and begin to move away as the man says, “Ah, you are here for the dates too.” I look again at the bin with the unrecognizable fruits. The man’s words were heavily accented, but I was certain he said “dates.”
I point at the bin, “Those are dates?”
“Oh yes, fresh dates,” he answers, his “r” trilling across his tongue.
I step up to the bin and the man follows me closely unaware that his requirements for personal space are about half of mine. The urge to move passes quickly; I’m spellbound as he continues talking about the fruit with such passion, not unlike the way I blather on about a fresh garden tomato. I reach for a bunch of the dates intuitively picking the ones that look the firmest and brightest yellow in color. But my intuition knows nothing of these dates. The man takes them from my hand and gently lays them back with the lot. “You don’t want those dates. They’re not ripe yet.”
Instead, with his brown, wrinkled hand he reaches for the soft, dark amber dates, the very dates I would have taken for rotten, and holds them in front of me. “These! These dates will taste like honey, so, so sweet I tell you.”
I grab a bag and together the man and I fill it with soft, slightly squishy amber dates. We finish filling the bag just as the store employee returns with six pints of black mission figs. I gush “thank yous” to both men and hurry off to pay for my things. Once outside, I stand in the sunshine and pull a date from the bag. The pit comes out with a gentle squeeze. I take a bite and close my eyes: my first fresh date. The old man’s words replay in my head, “so, so sweet I tell you.” It tastes like honey just as he promised. I pop the second half into my mouth and head for home.
Côgnà (Italian Fall Fruit Conserve)
This recipe was inspired by chef Peter Pastan’s recipe in Food and Wine Magazine, October 2008. Côgnà (pronounced Cōō-gna) is a Piedmontese conserve traditionally made with red wine must and fall fruits and nuts, typically hazelnuts and/or walnuts. This bold compote has a sweetness somewhere between a jam and a chutney. It’s right at home on a cheese plate, and a perfect partner for braised and roasted meats.
1 750ml bottle young, fruity red wine (Beaujolais or Zinfandel)
1 pound fresh figs, stemmed and halved
6 pears (or a mix of pears and apples)
juice of one lemon
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons orange rind, diced (or Orange Peel Preserves)
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and roughly chopped
- Combine all the ingredients except for the hazelnuts in a large bowl. Refrigerate and let macerate for an hour.
- Pour the contents of the bowl into a large, non-reactive pan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until very thick and reduced, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
- Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Stir in the hazelnuts and simmer for 5 minutes longer.
- Process the conserve immediately using your method of choice. If you’re a canning novice, The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource: Processing Jams and Jellies. Or skip the canning step and refrigerate your Côgnà for up to three months.
Makes 4 cups.