Warm almond-stuffed dates with lime zest are the absolute simplest, most sophisticated appetizer in my repertoire. Everyone loves them for their deep caramel-like flavor, even the date-wary!
Every day at Tante Marie’s, the best of our plates were saved for a special friend of the house. We took pains to be certain that he received our finest preparation of the starter, main course, and dessert from our menu of the day. Before the plates were whisked out the door to him for dinner, they were inspected by Chef Frances to be sure every sauce, every slice, every nut was just so.
When Mary, a.k.a. Tante Marie, needed a stand-in to make the special delivery each evening after class while she was away on a fall trip, I found myself with the fortunate opportunity to proudly place our food on the table for our friend, and to sit and visit a while in his apartment in Russian Hill.
Leading me to the living room so I could see the jaw-dropping view from his picture windows, Chuck noted the barges passing under the bridge or the twinkling lights across the bay in Marin, all basking in the ethereal colors of a San Francisco sunset. I asked Chuck, who is in his mid-90s, to tell me about his life. He described how he came to California as a young man and worked on a date farm for a time, showing me a black and white photo of an earlier version of himself picking dates. He told me about growing up at his grandmother’s apron strings in her restaurant; of his only sibling, a sister who died as a child in a bad accident; and then of the time he spent overseas in the military and how influenced he was there by French cookery.
Back in the U.S., he decided to import copper cookware from France and sell it from his little hardware shop, Williams-Sonoma. At the time there was only inferior aluminum or thin stainless cookware available in the U.S., so the French copper was a fast hit. Soon enough Chuck Williams opened a second shop in downtown San Francisco, and, well, you can gather the rest.
Chuck often wore a handsome, finely woven loden cashmere sweater, blue dress shirt, red tie, tan wool pants, and tan dress shoes. This was his uniform of sorts, part of his daily regimen of dress and work, which he still tended to every day in his office at the Williams-Sonoma headquarters just a few blocks away from his home. He ate the food we made for him with formality, dignity—and often, gusto: the tournedos, artichokes and potatoes Parisienne, the mocha pot de crème in a coffee cup with whipped cream and a chocolate covered espresso bean. “This is very good,” he said, “very special. They have pots de crème in France, and there it’s special too.”
Mostly it was quiet as we sat at his table, which was positioned directly in front of the picture windows, and ate. “Aren’t you going to eat anything?” he’d ask, wondering why a friend would bring dinner and then not eat. I usually had had more than enough that day of the dishes, but I could see it would be an offense not to eat with him, so I did. His mind was often there and sometimes, not. I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought I was an old friend who he only vaguely recognized. Sometimes he was confused and told me the same story again and then again. Of course, I never minded.
Chuck’s kitchen was as endearing and unexpected as he was, a humble kitchen with an electric coil stove and two antique copper molds hanging on the wall. He took pleasure in the little treasures he had on display all over the apartment. The tiny porcelain replicas of fruits and vegetables that were placed here and there were of particular delight, and he pointed them out to me as a kind of buffer whenever I said it was time for me to go.
The only sign in Chuck’s home of his empire was a small, creamy throw pillow on a side chair in the living room, decorated simply with a woven golden pineapple. Chuck didn’t need props from Williams-Sonoma to bolster his hospitality; he wore his welcome on his shirtsleeve as he greeted me in and lingered over good-bye when I left. He would be alone there for the rest of the evening, and it got so that it pained me to walk out the door. I would talk all the way down the long hallway to the elevator, and he would stand in his doorway saying goodbye until I disappeared.
Warm Almond-Stuffed Dates with Lime Zest
I learned about these dates at Tante Marie’s from the great chef and cooking teacher, Tori Ritchie. Her classes there are always jammed because she is such a dynamo, super knowledgeable, and so fun to cook with. I bought big, chewy dates every week from a stall at the Ferry Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, and once I learned Tori's beautiful way to prepare them, it became my favorite way to eat and serve dates. I like to keep almond-stuffed dates in the fridge, at the ready so these are a very quick treat to serve when friends drop over.
Pull open the tip of each date with your thumbs or a paring knife and pull out the pit. Push one or two almonds into the cavity (however many will fit) and push the edges of the date back together.
To warm the dates, in a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium low heat. Add the dates and cook, shaking the pan so the dates are coated in oil and warmed through, 2-3 minutes. Place the dates on a platter, dust with salt and finely zest the lime over top. Serve warm.