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This season, put dates on your plate

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By Julianne Munn

Christmas is just five days away, followed oh-so closely by New Year’s celebrations. It’s a busy time of year, but a time when family get-togethers are always highlighted by good food and good cheer.

If you’re stuck on presenting perfect appetizer trays for your guests on those holidays, fret no more. Over Easy has some appealing, unique and easy-to-prepare items to wow even the most blasé partygoers.

Two fruits associated with the holiday season worldwide are dates and pomegranates, though they are not as commonly found on American party buffets.

Both fruits were always on hand in our home when I was growing up in Indiana. My dad believed that pomegranates should be part of the holiday menu simply for eating the tiny jewel-like arils (seeds) out of hand or sprinkled atop other dishes.

My mother was a great fan of dates. Raisins weren’t part of our pantry stock, but oh my! My mother’s date-nut bars with chopped walnuts, dredged in powdered sugar after baking, were holiday delights.

She also substituted whole and chopped dates in any and all recipes that called for raisins, and it was fine with us.

Dates and pomegranates stir my Christmas memories like no other foods.

Here are two sumptuous date appetizer recipes courtesy of Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association, followed by a tasty pomegranate hors d’oeuvre recipe:

NUTTY MEDJOOL DATE CHEESE BALL
* 8 ounces fresh Medjool dates (pitted and minced)
* 8 ounces mascarpone or softened cream cheese
* 2 ounces minced pecans (preferably toasted)
* 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary, mint and/or cherry

Combine cream cheese or Mascarpone cheese with half of the minced pecans and all of the Medjool dates. For a more savory flavor, add rosemary as well.

Mix well and form into a ball. Roll in remaining pecans and chill well. Garnish with mint/cherry and serve with baby carrots, celery sticks and your favorite crackers. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

BACON-WRAPPED DATES
* 1 pound fresh Medjool dates
* 1 pound sliced bacon
* 6 ounce minced nuts (optional)

Split one side of Medjool date lengthwise and remove pit. Stuff with one teaspoon minced nuts. (Optional). Wrap bacon strip around date and secure with toothpick. Place under oven broiler. Turn once to ensure even cooking. Drain well. Serve warm. Makes 4 servings.

PUFF PASTRY POMEGRANATE BITES
* 1 (8-ounce) piece of blue or brie cheese, chilled
* 1 1/2 packages frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
* 1/3 cup pomegranate syrup (recipe below)
* 1/4 cup arils (seeds) from 1 large pomegranate

Cut cheese into 24 cubes, and set aside. Roll pastry into a 15-inch-by-10-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface; cut into 24 squares. Fit squares into miniature muffin pans, extending corners slightly above cup rims.

Bake pastry at 425 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or until it begins to brown. Remove from oven, and gently press handle of a wooden spoon into center of each pastry, forming a shell.

Spoon 1/2 teaspoon pomegranate syrup into each shell; top with a piece of blue cheese. Bake for five more minutes or until cheese melts. Top with the fresh pomegranate arils (seeds) and serve immediately.

POMEGRANATE SYRUP
* 4 cups fresh pomegranate juice
* 2 1/2 cups sugar
* 1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a saucepan, combine pomegranate juice, sugar and lemon juice over medium heat.

Stir until sugar has completely dissolved. Allow to cook over medium high heat for 20 to 25 minutes, or until juice is the consistency of syrup. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Julianne Munn is the food writer for the Citrus County Chronicle. Email her at jmunn2@tampabay.rr.com.