On the right, clad in funky turquoise shoes, is my special friend, Tawny. The friend I met in first grade, long before boobs, braces and boyfriends. But she's not the best date in the world. How could she be? We are both happily married.
So she may not be the best date, but she is the best traveling companion by far. A seasoned explorer, she convinced me to foray to London and Paris over this summer. With her. I jumped at the chance and we eagerly booked our flights early one winter morning. Four hours later, we learned of the Paris terror attack and massacre. It was not an auspicious beginning for our adventure.
Nevertheless, after lying to my mom that we had changed our plans and ditched Paris for Venice, I relaxed and started to enjoy the planning process.
"Pack very light," Tawny cautioned.
"I'm bringing my portable hot iron, so don't bring yours."
"I've got the guidebooks by Rick Steves on Kindle, so don't schlep any travel books."
"And don't forget to make a copy of your passport."
Can you tell she's a retired teacher?
The departure date arrived; we flew off together. She was very impressed that my suitcase was light -- though not as light as hers -- and that I had actually inquired about my health insurance coverage while I would be traveling in Europe and had gotten an international phone plan.
Always travel with a retired teacher. They are detailed-oriented, organized and a whiz at all those kings and queens that beheaded each other. Or was it just kings that did the beheading?
And now for the date part. Oh, sorry, if you were expecting me to confess to some hot steamy encounter I had while roaming the twisty streets of the Left Bank in Paris. Ah, I bet you envisioned a tall, swaggering 30-year-old, clothed in a tight-fitting Italian-cut gray suit, eyeing me from across the café. He saunters over, touching my hand lightly, leaning in close and whispers, "Dinner with moi, Madame?"
It didn't happen.
What did actually happen was much more mundane, but far more beneficial to my sanity, health and peace of mind.
It was 9 p.m. Tawny and I were each laying in our twin bed in the hotel room, doing what we so often had done as college roommates 50 years ago -- fantasizing about fudge. The creamy, delicious, rich and fattening-as-hell indulgence we craved and far too often indulged in winter quarter of our first year at the University of Cincinnati. Our dorm mates put on the famous freshman 15 (pounds) by ordering pepperoni pizzas with extra cheese at midnight. Our hips expanded and our tummies protruded due to the chunks of caramel mocha fudge we hauled into our room by the bagfuls and proceeded to tear through to combat our stress over our statistics course.
"You know what?" Tawny ruminated. "I've actually found a substitute for fudge. The texture is creamy, it's sugary, rich, and healthy."
"I'm not believing that," I muttered with great skepticism and turned over and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning her raving about the caramel mocha fudge substitute continued. "Seriously, my son, Jake, told me about it."
Okay, now I admit my ears perked up. Jake is a gourmet chef at some swanky dude ranch in Montana. Maybe those cowboys knew something worth exploring.
We proceeded to Harrods famous food court the very next day. Simply put, Harrods food court is a sensational assault on all five of your senses. And after eyeing marzipan almond Danish and the real-deal fudge, I was not in the mood for any lame substitutes. But Tawny persisted, firmly taking my arm and dragging me to a tiled counter overflowing with fruits of every shape, size and variety.
"I want two Medjool dates," she primly piped up to the nice lady behind the counter, who by the way, looked pretty well fed herself. "One for her and one for me."
Tawny thrusts one of the dates into my palm, instructing me to take a small bite and savor the moment.
Okay, I'm not going to lie. It wasn't caramel mocha fudge, but it was pretty damn close. It imparted a dense, textured, rich and sweet taste. Tawny was right -- it did indeed resemble eating fudge.
"Sixty-six calories per piece," she announced proudly. "A great source of fiber, and contains tons of essential minerals."
"I'm sold," I conceded meekly and went back and bought four more Medjool dates.
"Nomads eat them," she continued authoritatively. (Did I mention she is a retired school teacher?) "In the Middle East, where they grow wild. It provides them with a lot of quick energy, just like our power bars."
"Cool," I lamely answered back, quickly approaching a food-coma-of-delight stage.
In retrospect, it really was the best date ever.
And there's more: a recipe for a Medjool date appetizer sure to dazzle the most hard-to-please guests you will ever serve.
This recipe comes from food52.com. The author is Cordelia and she says once you start eating these dates, it's hard to stop.
• 30 dry, fresh Medjool dates
• 1/3 pound good quality sharp blue cheese
• 3/4 cups pecans
• 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
• 2 tablespoons honey
1. Get the blue cheese to room temperature.
2. Roast the pecans in a dry pan for about 7 min on low heat.
3. Chop the pecans into small pieces.
4. Mix the pecans with the blue cheese to create a paste.
5. Open the date and take out the date seed without breaking it into two halves.
6. Stuff each date with about one full teaspoon of the blue cheese mixture.
7. Serve at room temperature and drizzle balsamic vinegar and honey on top.