Eggplant and Arugula Sandwiches

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Hello and happy August. It feels strange to come back without acknowledging why I was gone. Life, essentially.  Two weddings (one in Texas, one in Illinois) meant there was quite a bit of travel. We drove to Chicago  so that I could scream the lyrics to my desert island album with 70,000 other people. (Seeing U2 was everything I had hoped it would be. After the show I told a friend it was like being baptized.) We spent a week with Aaron’s parents when they came up to Minneapolis for the 4th of July where we took them to a few of our favorite restaurants and went for a lot of walks. We spent the next week with my family in the North Woods of Wisconsin where we had a bonfire every night and drank about a case of wine. When we weren’t traveling places and hanging with people I was working my new second job leaving me with only Mondays off. And all my creative juices had been funneled into writing. Three weeks ago I wrote the last sentence of the first draft of a novel. It’s been full in the way that life gets full- messy and good and hard and ugly, all at the same time. So here’s some things I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks, and a killer new recipe.

Writing a first draft of a novel is a heady thing. Revising it will be harder. I’ve been steadily working my way through the podcast Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert, and every episode is like a balm for my uncertainty. Gilbert is equal parts guru and fairy godmother in addition to being a brave and lovely writer herself, and I find that whenever I’m feeling blah or uninspired or struggling that listening to her (or reading a passage from the accompanying book) helps get me sorted out.

There’s so much darkness going on in our country. The events in Charlottesville have left me shook, and probably you as well. I have never seen, in my lifetime, so many people empowered to say and do such hateful and destructive things. White supremacy is a disease that’s been festering in the soul of America for too long. There is no room for such things here. I have no hot takes about Charlottesville, and it will be a long time before my thoughts are coherent enough to write them down here, but this essay was floating around Facebook after Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of Philando Castille. I think it’s still deeply relevant, and it’s heartbreaking. Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller.

Someone who always has words about the darkness and light of our country is my good friend A. If you are a fan of getting the thoughts of supremely intelligent and highly empathetic people in your emails, I’d recommend checking out her tinyletter. She signed her most recent update as “Stay Angry. Stay Safe. Take Care of Each Other.”, and that might be some of the best advice I’ve heard recently. She also includes pictures of her good dog in almost every letter, so that’s also worth checking out.

Can we acknowledge how weird our language around food has become? We talk about “clean eating” rather than dieting and “getting healthy” rather than losing weight. We get preached to about body acceptance as if it was that simple to ignore all the complicated, contradictory messages about our bodies and ourselves. It’s good that we’re not talking so much about numbers on a scale anymore but instead now we’re cloaking our language about food and weight in terms of virtue and vice in a way that’s sneaky and dangerous. I found this article from the New York Times to be illuminating and resisting easy answers. I don’t think we have easy answers. Anyone who says anything else is lying to you.

On the topic of food, I’ve been mostly riffing on leftovers and following other people’s directions. There are seasons when I feel super inspired in the kitchen, but summer isn’t one of them. I know, I know, everything’s fresh and beautiful and so simple, but cooking at its core is about transformation. And when it’s too hot to turn on the stove you end up doing a lot less transformation and a lot more grocery shopping. When following other people’s leads I made this farro with tomatoes, which was tasty and as simple as promised. I finally made Northern Spy’s kale salad (with apples instead of squash) which is, indeed, genius. I made these tacos multiple times, and declined to post them for fear of this becoming an Anna Jones fan blog. (Let’s ignore the fact that it kind of already is.) (See also: her California miso and avocado salad, this warm tomato and kale salad,  and the pasta that convinced to put avocados in spaghetti.) I’ve riffed multiple times on my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. And I made these killer eggplant sandwiches, brought them to trivia one night, and proceeded to make everyone jealous.

It’s a simple conceit. Roast eggplant, brushed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, sliced thinly and piled onto bread. A couple big handfuls of arugula, and a smear of butter. It almost sounds unremarkable, but while reading Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year, lazily looking for inspiration, I stopped. Something about these sandwiches seemed elegant and delicious and simple and unexpected. And I’m so glad I did- these sandwiches are all those things, as well as phenomenal. I’d highly recommend you make them for your next opportunity to bring your dinner with you.

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Eggplant and Arugula Sandwiches

I call for smoked salt here, as I like the way it accentuates the meaty, savory flavors of eggplant. If you can’t find smoked salt (I’ve had luck at co-ops, Whole Foods, and gourmet stores at a wide variety of prices) regular salt will still be perfectly lovely. Ruth suggests using ficelles to make these sandwiches, which I had never heard of before this recipe and Google informs me is like a very thin baguette. While it does sound particular, having made these sandwiches I can attest that you want a higher filling to bread ratio than you generally think. My game plan moving forward is to shave out the center half inch or so of my baguette.

adapted from My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl

Makes 2 sandwiches

2 medium sized eggplants, compact and shinny
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for cookie sheets
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus extra for drizzling
smoked salt
ground black pepper
a couple big handfuls of arugula
one baguette
a few tablespoons softened unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 425. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on two cookie sheets, and then set aside.

Trim the edges off of the eggplants. Using a mandolin or very sharp knife slice the eggplant longways into thin, crisp strips about 1/4 inch in thickness. Lay those slices out onto an oiled cookie sheet. In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Using a pastry brush, brush the olive oil-balsamic blend onto the upwards facing side of the eggplant, then sprinkle with the smoked salt and black pepper. Place both trays into the oven, and roast for 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the trays, and using tongs, flip the eggplant over. Brush the new side of the eggplant with the remainder of the olive oil-balsamic mixture, sprinkle with more smoked salt and black pepper, and roast for another 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

To assemble your sandwiches, slice the baguette into two pieces, and slice through the middle of each piece. Smear each side of the baguette with butter. Layer the now-cooled eggplant as you would lunchmeat, folding and draping as you go. On the other side heap on a generous handful or two of arugula. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Eat, and make everyone around you jealous.

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Rose Posca

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During and after college Aaron worked as a bartender. The places he worked at ranged from good to great, and he took to the work with a single-minded enthusiasm. Need someone to explain to stir or shake a cocktail? Curious about why a drink uses this specific bitter Italian liquor and not that nearly identical bitter Italian liquor? Have an opinion about jiggering in ounces verses measuring with milliliters versus free pouring? Aaron’s your guy. We have a bookcase in our dining room that’s filled with booze. There’s ancho chili liquor and local sour cherry cordial and approximately 50 types of bitters. There’s the stuff he’s made himself like Green Tea Vodka, Hibiscus Gin, and Popcorn Rum. He collects cocktail glasses, name drops cocktail historians, and chats up local bartenders about ratios. He’s been passionate about cocktails since we were able to legally drink.

I’m not passionate about cocktails. I appreciate a well-made drink, but usually choose a Manhattan or Sidecar over a deeply imaginative confection. But passion is sexy and fascinating, and in this case it’s deeply convenient. Aaron takes care of the drinks, and I manage the food. He carefully selects the wine for date nights and I roll out the pasta. At dinner parties he’s whipping up spicy Palomas while I bring cake. He suggests the brewery to meet up with friends and I make the snacks. We sit at the bar in restaurants, Aaron chatting up the bartenders and I investigating the menus. It’s a happy pairing (pun intentional) but it has its downside. I have made perhaps five cocktails in my entire life.

That may not seem notable to you. Let me just emphasize again I have a bookcase full of booze three feet from where I write this. There is all the equipment and resources that I could need, including dozens of cocktail books. And I have no aversion or hangups about alcohol. I just don’t ever put in the effort to make my own drinks. This habit extends to non-alcoholic drinks as well. We had friends over this weekend for the afternoon. I assumed we’d drink water. Aaron whipped up jasmine-lemongrass Arnold Palmers instead.

Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I get inspired rather than lazy by Aaron’s passion. This inspiration usually manifests in non-alcoholic beverages. Have you heard about posca ? It’s an ancient Roman drink, essentially vinegar, water, herbs, and perhaps sweeteners. There’s no known recipe, and the exact proportions have been lost to history. But I love the idea of it- tart brightness from vinegar, honey for sweetness, herbs to keep things interesting. It’s lemonade before lemonade, a refreshing summer drink.

For this posca I took a hint from my bartender husband and instead of honey made a rose syrup. The syrup is simple, floral, and brilliantly pink. I mixed it with apple cider vinegar (because apples and roses are botanically related. Science!), water, and ice. The drink is beautiful, ended up a pale shade of millennial pink and with a lovely, light blend of sweet and tart. It’s, as they say at my work, extremely quaffable. I’ve been drinking it in the sun while reading a master’s newest book and hiding from this terrifying news. If you need a spot of sunshine (and I certainly do), this rose posca performs admirably.

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Rose Posca

Dried rose petals can be found at health food stores and co-ops (mine sells them in the medicine section) as well as some spice stores. The formula I give here is to my taste. Feel free to play with the levels of vinegar, syrup, and water to make your house version of posca.

Serves 1

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dried rose petals
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

In a small saucepan combine the sugar with the rose petals and 1/2 cup water. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring once in a while to dissolve. Once the sugar is dissolved, set the syrup aside and let the rose petals steep. I found 2 hours gave me the strong rose presence I wanted, but if you have less time the syrup tastes of rose after 15 minutes. Strain into a clean jar. Refrigerate if not using right away.

To make the posca, combine 1 cup of water, the apple cider vinegar, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of the rose syrup in a glass with ice. Stir well. Drink in the sun.

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White Beans with Fennel, Lemon, and Tomato from “A Modern Way to Cook”

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A week ago I was having a relaxing morning before work. You know the routine. Make yourself breakfast. Eat breakfast while sipping caffeine of choice. Do both while checking on blogs. Accidentally spill caffeine of choice on your computer.

Oops.

That was painful. I hadn’t planned for a new computer, and there were a lot of files on that old computer that weren’t saved anywhere else. And without wanting to inflate my own importance, I would argue that it’s painful for you. Because I had a recipe for you that I only get to share just now. And it’s filled with all sorts of good stuff. Specifically, beans, fennel, lemon, and tomato.

These beans come from Anna Jones‘ new book A Modern Way to Cook. I’m slightly obsessed with Anna Jones’ work. Her first book, A Modern Way to Eat is one of my most used cookbooks, and for good reason. She writes smart recipes that are clever without being precious. It’s hard to flip through the pages of her books without being inspired. She brings a cook’s eye to presentation and plays with form and texture. But she doesn’t forget that food should be delicious and nourishing and it needs to be approachable. That’s a message I appreciate in any cookbook, but especially in a vegetarian cookbook that promotes healthy eating.

Her new book is divided not by meals or seasons, but by time commitment. I found these beans labeled as a 25 minute dinner, and immediately had to make them. I love the sweetness that comes from the fennel and honey, the tang from the lemons and vinegar, and the savory notes from the garlic and spices. It truly comes together in 25 minutes (maybe even faster), which means it’s great for spur of the moment dinner decisions (aka, the only kind I have). And I love that you get something hearty and earthy and rich without any esoteric ingredients, or convoluted technique.

It’s a fantastic dinner. And I can’t wait to cook obsessively through this book.

White Beans with Fennel, Lemon, and Tomato

adapted from A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones

Serves 4

Anna calls for canned lima beans in her original recipe. I have never seen canned lima beans, and so I made mine with Great Northern beans, which were delicious. Anna suggests accompanying this with a green salad or some flatbread, but Aaron and I devoured it with some runny cheese and crusty sourdough.

1 large fennel bulb
2 tablespoons of olive oil
bunch of green onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 lemon, quartered and seeds removed
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 fourteen ounce cans of white beans, drained and rinsed
fennel fronds, for serving
olive oil, for serving

Cut off the fronds of the fennel and set aside. Cut the bulb in half and trim it. Peel off any tough or bruised outer layers, then slice the fennel into half inch slices.

Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil it hot, add the fennel, making sure to spread it out so all the fennel makes contact with the oil. Sautée until it’s browning on one side (between 2-4 minutes) then flip, either with tongs or a spatula to the other side. Sautée again until browning, then add the green onions and garlic. Let cook until fragrant, a couple more minutes.

Add the tomatoes and lemon, then add the honey, vinegar, oregano, fennel seed, chilis, and salt. Stir well and let it all heat together for a minute, then add the beans and 1/2 cup of water. Stir again, and then let the whole thing simmer away until the beans are warmed through, about five minutes.

Serve warm, topped with the leafy bits of the fennel fronds and a drizzle of olive oil.

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Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas and Paprika

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What do you make for dinner when you pair a vegetarian, a Celiac, and a few girls who would be perfectly happy with chili dogs and a side of cheetos?

The first time I made this eggplant stew was two years ago. A month after Aaron and I got married I decided to have some high school friends over for dinner. Just before the wedding we had moved to Illinois and into a new apartment, and during the most chaotic month of my life we entertained exactly zero times. I was eager to show off our new place with all its gleaming hardwood floors and large windows. There were new pots and pans and knives to use, and it had been some time since I had lived in the same state as these friends. It was an occasion for celebration. And like any celebration there was a carefully chosen menu.

Nothing too strange, nothing too foreign, but something ultimately delicious and satisfying. For our main I made a smokey eggplant stew, deciding that there was nothing too terrifying about eggplant. There was a kale salad of baby kale and baby grapes, an adorable combination that quashed any qualms about eating kale, an attempt at an acceptable cake that did not work out, and some maple grilled peaches that did. Aaron had been at work, but arrived in time for dessert and mixed cocktails for those of us who drank. I made popcorn after dinner. There were games. We ended up with surprise overnight guests sleeping on our old leather couches. The next morning I convinced the kale-phobic to drink a kale smoothie for breakfast and we lingered over caffeine and kale for hours. The only leftovers were the disappointment of the cake.

It’s a night, exceptional in its ordinary joy, that I remember often. It’s the sort of nights I like to celebrate with friends as often as possible, even though I again live in a different state of these friends. It’s a night that serves as a talesman for the power of food to connect us, and the ways that sharing a meal can be like sharing ourselves.

I’ve made this stew as a souvenir a few times. This stew was a godsend. It’s the type of thing I like to eat late summer, getting to use the last of summer’s produce without pretending like it doesn’t cool down at night. It’s smokey and meaty from the paprika and eggplants and slightly sweet, slightly tart from the tomatoes and pepper. It’s not quite ratatouille, but could be kissing cousins. And the taste is so much more complex than it should from the cooking time. It’s a beautiful sort of meal to share with the people you love.

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Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas and Paprika

I find this stew makes a filling meal, but if you’d like a bit more heft (or to stretch it further) it’s delicious over a bed of brown rice.

adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 medium eggplants (about a pound and a half), chopped into small cubes
1 red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 roma tomatoes, quartered, deseeded, and chopped
1 15 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
chopped parsley, to serve

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the eggplant, stirring every few minutes until golden in color, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile warm a dutch oven or other good-sized pot over medium heat. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the onion, pepper, and paprika, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and pepper are starting to soften. Add in the garlic. Cook for a few more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Add in the tomato paste and stir well. Cook for another minute or so, then add a tablespoon or two of water. Stir well, being careful to scrape up any dark bits on the bottom of the pot.

Add in the tomatoes, chickpeas, cooked eggplant, 2 cups of water, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a rolling simmer and cover. Cook, uncovering and stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have collapsed and are stew-y in texture, about 30 minutes.

Taste and adjust for seasoning, and serve hot topped with a lot of chopped parsley.

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Sautéed Dates + Seattle

What’s the point of vacation? It’s expensive. It’s often difficult to come by the time, especially here in the United States. Going on vacation can be complicated, with multiple moving parts and elaborate logistics. It’s unfortunately easy to put off, deciding that instead of going through all the fuss you can treat yourself nicer in your own place. There are many, many reasons to put off going on vacation. But once you’ve talked yourself into doing it after a long vacation-dry spell, and you arrive, and you walk on new streets and breathe air that feels different than the air at home. You eat new food and meet new people and see new sites and you exhale. Because the point of vacation isn’t so much the going as the being.

Seattle, with its looming mountains and vast expanse of water, was beautiful. It felt possible but not quite probable that there are people who actually live there- people who have thirty plus foot pines in their backyards, who commute to work on ferries, who hike up and down the hills to run their daily errands. It’s a very different background to daily life from my lovely but admittedly flat Midwest. If Minneapolis is Miss Congeniality, Seattle is the pageant queen.

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Aaron and I primarily explored Seattle the way we’ve come to prefer- on foot. At 26, neither of us have ever rented a car. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. Instead we got from the airport to our AirB&B via the light rail and some on-foot trecking. It takes up time, and energy, but there’s a way that you understand a place by walking that you simply can’t get by driving. I’ll take inconvenience of walking any day.

But we did explore by car when we couldn’t walk to our destination. At the exact midpoint of our vacation we woke up early (for restaurant people) and packed up the car my cousin Danielle loaned us, then drove south. We went down the interstate, then the state highway, then a country road, until we were at the wooden gates of Mount Raineer National Park. And then we drove a further half hour through switchbacks, over stone lined creeks, in the golden shade of evergreens, and occasionally at the edge of cliffs before reaching our destination- Paradise.

I’ve scarcely seen a place more aptly named than Paradise. Over a mile above sea level, we were well below the tree line and the towering summit of Mount Raineer, but were quite possibly higher than I’ve ever been outside of an airplane. The stop was full of meadows, with flowers in bloom, and waterfalls. We hiked around on the lower elevation trails for an hour, and were humiliated by being passed by seniors using canes. I felt much less prepared than the hikers with alpine poles, and backpacking gear, but somewhat more prepared than the woman wearing wedges and a maxi dress.

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The peace was astonishing. We had no signal or coverage, which was both frustrating (if you don’t Instagram it, did it really happen? and all that) and liberating. There is something to be said for simply being there, in the calm, with the nature in all its majesty and terror. It was a privilege to be in the mountains. As we drove away back through the switchbacks and rocks and trees we decided that over the course of our marriage we wanted to visit every national park. For whatever our flaws, America is beautiful.

When we weren’t hiking mountains we could be found eating and drinking, because that’s what we make (much) of our money in and we love it. From handmade pho noodles in the ID (International District, which seems like a more appropriate name than Chinatown, which we also heard it called) to woodfired pizza in Ballard, from a different coffee shop every morning to afternoon beers in local breweries, we had them all. Here are some of our favorites.

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Canon
We drank here the day after our anniversary in celebration. There were hundreds of whiskeys stored everywhere, fog machines used to create drinks, and a vintage radio mystery program playing in the bathroom. We had made reservations, and a good thing too. When we tried to go again (because the drinks were that good) without reservations we couldn’t get in.

Rumba
Rumba had the best tiki drinks I’ve ever tasted with just the right amount of kitch. The walls were covered not in paint or wallpaper but in vintage tropical post cards, and the seats were turquoise leather. It would have been an easy place to love even without the killer piña coladas and daiquiris.

Starbuck Reserve Roastery
Touristy, but fascinating. You can choose from a variety of ways to make your coffee here, or do a side by side tasting. One of the walls bore a story of searching for beans, which ended with the line “It may be a labor of love. But it’s mostly love.” As cheesy as it is, I’ve adapted it as my new mantra.

Delancey and Essex
For crisp but not cracker-y woodfire pizza, for bourbon peaches, for before dinner drinks of mezcal, blackberry, and honey (me) and side by side Americano tastings (Aaron), Delancey was the neighborhood spot everyone should be so lucky to have.

Dong Thap
We found this place because the our neighbor at the pizza bar in Delancey recommended it, and afterwards I was so upset we couldn’t go to every place he listed. Dong Thap is that killer. Pho with housemade noodles, everyone. The broth was rich and savory and the noodles were perfectly chewy. I had only had pho once before, a sad specimen that turned me off to it for years. Thanks to Dong Thap I’ve seen the error of my ways.

General Porpoise
A chef-y donut shop that sells donuts, caffeine, and champaign. All of the donuts are yeasted and filled, and all of them are excellent. This is the only place our whole trip we visited twice, because I couldn’t get over their housemade chai (it was made with saffron!)

The Whale Wins
We celebrated our anniversary here, in the bright and cheerful space. The food was incredible-pickled raisins! Halibut butter on sourdough! Roast carrots and fennel with harissa and yogurt! We had a long, luxurious evening here, topped off with two desserts and champaign. The blueberry shortbread with crème fraîche ice cream was delicious, but it was the sautéed dates that really killed it. They were satin-y in texture, and tasted of caramel. I would have ordered them twice if I had known how good they were- once as a starter and once as a dessert. Because I didn’t, and because I missed this space I’ve brought back the recipe for you as a gift.

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Sautéed Dates

adapted from The Whale Wins, with guidance from A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus by Renee Erickson

This is more a template than a recipe, and like all templates relies best on you paying attention and using your judgement. I bought some lovely “fresh” dried dates (the sort that are already wrinkled and brown, but are soft and stored in the produce cooler) to make this recipe, and they were luscious and silky, the sautéed sides shattering like a shell when we bit into them. But as an experiment I also tried this with some withered old dried dates, and they loosened up with the heat. They did not have the same luxurious texture, but the taste was more intense. All this is to say, whatever you have is good with this recipe.

Olive oil
Dates (I used Medjool dates for both tests)
Flaked salt such as Maldon

In a heavy skillet warm a slip of olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil is warm place your dates into the oil. Watch and listen carefully, and don’t walk away. Once you start to smell sugar rotate your dates with tongs and place it gently on the other side. It should take about 30 seconds to a minute for the first side to be done. Rotate again to a third side once the second smells of caramel, and then let the dates sit for another 30 seconds. Remove from heat and place the dates onto a serving tray. Sprinkle with salt. If you want to be dramatic with the presentation you could drizzle the used olive oil over the dates, but that’s not necessary. Eat while warm.

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