by Anthony Enright
Some seasonal treats nearly scream to be enjoyed in a kind of poetic frenzy, with the sad realization that they will be gone (and even forgotten) too soon. This is how I feel about fresh figs. In our area they seem to appear and disappear in a tiny span of a few weeks each Fall and seem like a great luxury during that time. If you’re only familiar with figs in their dried form (or, even in the more common Newton) you may not be aware of the seductive power of this unique fruit. There is something decadent, delicate and sensual about eating a fresh fig that inevitably reminds me of the famous D.H. Lawrence poem on the subject. It reads in part:
The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.
But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.
Dramatic and pretentious, sure; figs are the kind of food that do that to you, they hint at something exotic and unfulfilled even as the juice drips down your fingers. Okay, I’m not even sure what got into me this morning, I did eat a dozen figs last night, so chalk all that purple prose up to foodie nostalgia. Beyond the joy of just eating fresh figs raw (either politely or with vulgarity as per above), the fruit makes a great addition to seasonal cooking, and highlighting them in your Autumn dishes will give you a better appreciation of this classical fruit.
Around here, fresh figs tend to be rather spendy, and not that easy to find. Typically the co-ops and Whole Foods are good places to look, and you can expect to spend between $5 and $7 for a small basket. There are a few varieties available, with the black ‘Mission’ figs tending to be the sweetest and most honeyed, while lighter skinned varieties have more floral, melon flavors. With all types the flavors intensify as they cook, so they tend to be a tasty counterpoint to savory items.
I have a few favorite ways to use figs which I’ll share below. This morning when I was gushing about them, my friend Zoe shared her favorite recipe, so I’ll start with that. Since I’m stealing from it, I should probably mention it’s also available on her mouth-watering cooking blog Not Your School Lunch:
Lemon-Mascarpone Tart with Fresh Figs and Honey
This is really not too complicated. You pulse up the crust in the food processor, and bake it for about 25 minutes. Then you just whip up the mascarpone with some honey and lemon zest and spread it out once the crust is cooled, arranging some fig slices on it and brush those up with some jam and more honey. Finito! No, seriously, that’s really it. And for a gorgeous, heavenly dessert that looks like a lotus; I’d say that’s not bad at all.
For the crust:
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. cornmeal (not stone-ground)
2 stick butter, chilled
1 1/2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
7-8 tbsp. ice water
Pulse the flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt in a food processor to mix. Add the rosemary and butter, cut into small pieces, and pulse again to combine. slowly drizzle in the ice water, pulsing until the dough will hold together when pressed into a ball. Press into a 9-inch tart pan evenly across the bottom and up the sides. (This crust recipe always has extra. I used it to make the two mini tarts you see in the pictures.) Smooth out with the back of a spoon, and place in a 400 oven for 25-30 minutes, or until just starting to turn golden. I pulled out the small ones after 18 minutes. Let cool completely.
For the tart:
8 oz. mascarpone cheese at room temperature
1/3. c. sour cream
zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp honey (you can also use 1/4 c. sugar, but i like the honey)
1 tsp rose water (optional)
1/8 tsp. salt
1 1/2 lbs. fresh figs, sliced 1/4 thick lengthwise
3 tbsp jam (currant, raspberry, etc)
1 tbsp honey
Whisk together sour cream, mascarpone, lemon zest, 2 tbsp. honey, salt and rose water. Spread over the cooled crust, and arrange fig slices how you’d like. In a small saucepan, add the jam and tbsp of honey and on medium-low, melt jam (or as Omar calls it, jammy-wham) and brush over the fig slices. Serves 6.
Over on the savory side, fresh figs matched with prosciutto and goat cheese is a classic paring. As I believe anything that tastes good together tastes even better on a pizza, I like the combination below.
Fig, Prosciutto, Goat Cheese and Arugula Pizza:
Pizza crust (makes 3 pizzas):
1 teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
4 cups All-purpose Flour
1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
1/3 cup Olive Oil
Sprinkle yeast over 1 1/2 cups warm (not lukewarm) water. In a mixer, combine flour and salt. With the mixer running on low speed (with paddle attachment), drizzle in olive oil until combined with flour. Next, pour in yeast/water mixture and mix until just combined. Coat a separate mixing bowl with a light drizzle of olive oil, and form the dough into a ball. Toss to coat dough in olive oil, then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise for at least an hour. Use right away or store in the fridge until you need it. (It’s best to make the dough at least 24 hours in advance, and 3 or 4 days is even better as the flavors develop.)
For the pizza:
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Tablespoons Fig Spread Or Jam
Kosher Salt To Taste
12 ounces Fotina cheese, shredded
6 ounces, Thinly Sliced Prosciutto
1 bunch Washed And Rinsed Arugula
Freshly Ground Pepper, to taste
6 oz. Fresh Goat Cheese (chevre)
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roll out 1/3 of the pizza dough as thinly as possible. Place on a large baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Spread fig spread (or jam) all over the surface of the dough. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Spread shredded Fotina over the surface. Add Fresh Figs and 1/2 of the goat cheese and Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until crust is golden and cheese is bubbly. Remove from oven and lay prosciutto over hot pizza, sprinkle on arugula and top with dabs of the remainder of the goat cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. serves 4 as a first course and 2 – 3 as a main course.
Figs also react beautifully with other Mediterranean flavors. They are traditional in heavily spiced Moroccan dishes like the surprisingly easy and ridiculously fragrant braised chicken dish below.
Chicken with Figs in Ras-el-Hanout and Couscous (via Bon Appetit)
6 whole chicken leg-thigh pieces (about 4 1/2 pounds total)
1 tablespoon salt plus additional for seasoning
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 baby carrots, peeled
1 cup shallots, peeled, halved (about 4 large)
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme plus additional for garnish
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons ras-el-hanout (available at Pezey’s or Bills Imports)
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
3/4 cup dry white wine
14 Brown Turkey figs, halved
2 teaspoons Sherry wine vinegar
Couscous (prepared according to package directions)
Arrange chicken on rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle each side of each piece with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight. Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Transfer chicken to skillet and sear until golden, 5 to 6 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to heavy roasting pan, skin side up. Add carrots, shallots, garlic, 1 teaspoon thyme, lemon peel, ras-el-hanout, chicken broth, white wine, and remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil to skillet. Bring to boil, whisking up brown bits. Pour mixture over chicken in roasting pan and bring to simmer over medium heat. Cover with foil; place in oven. Braise 1 hour, until tender. Transfer chicken, carrots, and shallots to baking sheet; discard garlic. Pour pan juices into large saucepan. Spoon off fat from surface. Boil juices until reduced to 1 3/4 cups, whisking occasionally, about 18 minutes. Add figs and vinegar; cook until figs are just heated through, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Place cooked couscous on large plate. Top with chicken, vegetables, and figs. Spoon sauce over chicken and figs. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve immediately.
I encourage you to take advantage of the season and pick up a few fresh figs to experiment with. Try them chopped up with Gorgonzola on a crostini, or roasted with carrots, parsnips and shallots alongside veal or pork, or let them caramelize in the oven with honey and walnuts and serve with vanilla ice cream. The season will run out before you run out of ideas. Whether you eat them raw or cook with them I promise you’ll feel like fresh figs are decadent treat. They may just have you writing some purple prose of your own.