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« The Watermelon Whisperer | Main | New Orleans »
Monday
Sep122005

Summer's Last Bounty

figs.jpg

Come September, some people love the thought that winter is on its way and look forward to the onset of fuzzy socks, glowing fireplaces, snow sports and rib-sticking stews. For me, however, September always brings ineffable pangs of sadness. The light grows weaker, the winds grow colder, and everything green starts to look pale and exhausted; summer still officially reigns but winter is beating down the door. Although having a marine climate means we don't face the fierce cold of many places, our excruciatingly short days and ceaseless rain and wind make winter a similarly unpleasant prospect. What brings me even more despair is the knowledge that my beautiful, seasonal bounty of fruits and vegetables is nearly finished; soon, anything fresh in the markets will inevitably be arriving from some far-off hemisphere where they grow things without taste. Although I appreciate that the seasons must change in order for summer's offerings to be so glorious, honestly, if I had my way the skies would be blue and the trees laden with fruit year round. Unfortunately for me, that's never going to happen; luckily for me, before summer departs entirely I still have a bumper crop of figs to enjoy.

When I was a kid I ate figs only in Fig Newtons, which for those of you who didn't grow up in the States, is kind of like having your first encounter with oranges through Jaffa Cakes. I can't even remember when I tasted a fresh fig the first time, but chances are I didn't even realize I was dealing with the same fruit. Real figs are one of nature's truly stunning creations - I have heard people gasp in amazement upon seeing figs cut open for the first time, such is their mesmerizing beauty. The contrast between the dark indigo or the light green of the exterior and the vibrant purpley red of the interior is like witnessing impressionist art in the making, and the taste - something like a cross between honey and raisins and sherry and plums - is just as exquisitely breathtaking. Figs have been impressing people for a good while, too, revered as symbols of abundance, knowledge and fertility by ancient cultures across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Romans were convinced they carried medicinal qualities, while the ancient Greeks accorded them such value that their export was forbidden. Today they are still considered one of the most sensual and aphrodisiacal of all foods.

What I love most about figs, however, is their versatility. Figs, with their deep exotic flavor and meaty texture can go as equally well with sweet as they can with savory, and no matter what the context create dishes of astonishing beauty and refinement. You can do something as simple as roasting them with honey and serving them with yogurt, or you can pair them with meats, vegetables and wine and watch them stand up for themselves just as well. With the arrival of the season's first affordable figs from Turkey, I decided to tackle a dish I had bookmarked long ago in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and which I was reminded of recently when I ran across this article about it in the NY Times (you can even watch Judy Rodgers prepare it in the accompanying video). Meaty, succulent chicken legs are braised with figs, onions, honey, and vinegar - a simple combination, but one that is utterly, utterly delicious.

This is beautiful, assaulting-all-your-senses food. With things like this on your plate it's easy to forget that this time of the year should bring with it anything but delight.
 
chickenfigs.jpg 

 

The Zuni Cafe's Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar

Source: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
Yield: Serves 4
Notes: When choosing ripe figs, go for feel over appearance - they might be wrinkled and blemished, but if they are heavy and soft they will probably be perfect. Also, feel free to experiment with the quantities of vinegar and honey in the sauce - after putting in the specified amounts I felt it was still a bit too subtle, so I upped the amounts of both and loved the result. I used an apple balsamic vinegar in the sauce and thought it was delicious, and I think a normal balsamic would work wonderfully as well.

4 free-range chicken legs (thigh plus drumstick)
salt
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into eight wedges
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
about 1/2 cup strong chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
a few crushed black peppercorns
about 2 tablespoons cider vinegar (I used apple balsamic)
about 1 tablespoon honey (I used a bit more)
8 to 10 ripe fresh figs - any kind you like

Wash and dry the chicken legs. Season evenly all over with salt (using about 3/4 teaspoon per pound) and refrigerate covered until ready to use (for best results do this step 12 to 24 hours in advance).

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Pat the legs dry. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then add the legs skin-side down. The oil should sizzle, not pop explosively. Cook until the skin is golden brown and crispy, not moving the chicken, for 8-10 minutes. Turn the legs over and color only slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes. Pour off the fat.

Transfer the chicken skin-side up to a shallow flameproof roasting/braising dish (or leave in the skillet if it is ovenproof), arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the legs. Add the wine, vermouth and enough stock to come up to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Bring to a simmer on the stove and add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black pepper.

Place uncovered in the oven and cook until the meat is completely tender but not falling off the bone, about 40 minutes. The exposed skin will have turned golden and crispy; the liquid ought to have reduced by half. Remove from the oven and set on a slight tilt so the fat will collect on one side of the pan. Spoon off as much as you can.

Set the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Distribute the figs evenly among the chicken and onions, add the vinegar and honey, and swirl again to avoid smashing the tender fruit. Continue boiling until the sauce is syrupy and glossy; its taste should be rich and vibrantly sweet and sour. Add more salt, honey or vinegar to taste.

Serve each chicken leg with 2 wedges of onion and 4 or 5 fig halves, bathed in a few spoonfuls of sauce. This is good with a chewy bread to soak up the delicious sauce.

 

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Reader Comments (25)

Melissa, thanks for pointing out Judy Rodgers' recipe. I went a little crazy at the farmers market and bought far too many figs and was wondering what I would do with them all! This savory use of figs sounds like the perfect solution to my problem, if you could call an abundance of figs a problem. Thank you for the inspiration and, as usual, for your beautiful writing and photography.
September 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBrett
I adore figs. Whether eating out of hand or with goat cheese drizzled with a bit of honey. I do still like Fig Newtons! ;-)
September 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne
it is amazing how you don't even realize how sensual fresh figs are until you yourself reach a certain level of maturity... most kids I know don't like fresh figs for many reasons - mostly the texture. I know it turned me off.

now, I love them. such a sensual, sexual, forbidden kind of fruit, with the gorgeous contrast between soft, moist flesh and round crunchy seeds. Beautiful. No wonder the meal I made for Rosh Hashanah last year ended with a malabi (rosewater cream) dessert topped with fresh figs and drizzled with avocado-blossom honey. It was half a day of preparations - but heaven knows it was worth the exhaustion...

btw, did you know that avocados were considered by the Aztecs to be powerful aphrodesiacs? so much so, that young maidens (virgins) were not allowed to have any contact with it, for fear that it will corrupt their innocence.
September 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom
Loved this post, and adored every word about figs. Beautifully, sensually and evocactively written, Melissa! This seems the perfect recipe to bridge summer and autumn - the braising of the meat seems to evoke the slower pace of fall, while the succulent figs are the perfect reminder of the season. My mouth is watering already!
September 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentertara
Another beautiful post and luscious photograph, Melissa! I was just at the market this evening and *almost* snatched up a basket of figs, but I went for the some unusually fragrant peaches instead...let's hope the figs hang around for a few more weeks, so I can get my fill. I'd like to do some cooking with them--this recipe has just rocketed to the top of the list!--but often I wind up simply eating them out of hand, or quartered and dragged through a bowl of plain yogurt with honey. Mmmm. Now I'm cursing myself for not buying them tonight...
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMolly
YUM!
I have seen fresh figs at the moment too, this would be a perfect way to savour the last few cold nights before the temperature once again becomes stiffling!
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterclare eats
Hi Melissa, beautiful photographs as usual. This is a spectacular dish! so lovely but unfussy. You've made me wonder why I've only been looking at the figs at the market, and havent bought any yet.. silly silly me..
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMichele
I've only had Fig Newtons. It'll be great to taste figs another way -- fresh!

Paz
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Hi Brett - How I wish I had your problem! Seriously, you're lucky to be blessed with local figs and I'm glad I've helped you to figure out what to do with some of them. If you find yourself still at a loss you're welcome to toss a few my way ;)

Hi Jeanne - Figs, goat cheese and honey. Sounds like dessert tonight! :)

Hi Malka - I can't actually remember eating figs as a kid, but knowing myself I wouldn't have liked them one bit. And very interesting factoid about the avocado - you're full of fascinating information!

Hi Tara - Thanks! But I can't take the credit, it's the figs that evoke poetry ;) And I agree, there's something very fall-like about this dish. Actually the night I made it it got dark outside while we were eating for the first time in several months - the seasons are definitely changing...

Hi Molly - I can't say I wouldn't have done the same -- you know how I feel about peaches! :) Figs should be around for a while longer, so don't feel too rushed. Then again, once you start cooking with them you realize how many things there are to do and suddenly the season seems all too short...

Hi Clare - So you'll savor your figs on your last cold nights while we savor them on our first ones... Somehow I'd rather be in your situation! :)

Hi Michele - That's not entirely true, you made some spectacular fig and rosemary skewers a while back if I'm not mistaken! But now they're really at their peak, so there's no excuse to not pay them another visit. You'll probably even have your pick of varieties, unlike me, slave to importers...

Hi Paz - If you've only ever had fig newtons, you're in for a treat! Fresh ripe figs are nothing like that sticky brown filling, and ever so much more esthetically pleasing as well. Let me know how you like them!
September 13, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Seared foie gras w/ fresh figs = best thing in the world

September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Machanic
What a gorgeous photo! I've never cooked with figs before. Maybe I will have to try it.
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBeth - The Zen Foodist
Hmmm...I haven't pulled out my Zuni Cookbook in ages, and it's so damn dreary here in SF, nothing but heavy gray skies weighing on our shoulders, and frightfully cold out-of-nowhere winds cutting corners to blow up skirts. We need some cozy warm comforts from the kitchen!
September 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
hi melissa, exquisite pictures and eloquent paen to figs, as always! zuni cafe cookbook is one of my favourites (i really love her essays on stock-making and salting...), and the chicken braised with figs and honey, definitely a must-make...i tried the recipe once, and like yourself, upped the sweet-and-sour quotient to taste too, using a few drops of fig vincotto in addition to accentuate the figginess. apple balsamic sounds like an utterly delicious (not to mention ingenious) idea...cheers,j
September 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Hi Melissa,

I've had this book for a while now, but I haven't really opened. I never knew what I was missing. This looks so good! I never thought of having figs with chicken, but it all makes sense doesn't it. And, I heard that the roasted chicken at Zuni is to die for.
September 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterReid
Hi Adam - Never had it, but I wouldn't dream of contradicting you. I'd be happy to whip it up if I could attract a little foie-gras sponsorship! ;)

Hi Beth - They're really a great fruit to cook with since they've got really interesting textural contrasts and an assertive flavor. Do give it a try!

Hi Catherine - Ah yes, I do remember those glorious Bay Area summers. What was it Mark Twain said? Anyway, in the middle of winter you'll get your revenge - that's when you'll be drinking your tropical cocktails and sunbathing in the backyard...

Hi J - I don't think I have another cookbook that I enjoy reading like a novel quite as much as Zuni - she just has so much to teach, and everything she says just seems to make such sense. Have you made any other recipes from it you would particularly recommend?

Hi Reid - I'd also had it for far too long before using it. Have you at least read it? She has some great techniques to teach, even if you don't use the recipes. And I'm planning to give her roast chicken a try, despite my lack of a brick oven...
September 14, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Hi Melissa - this looks absolutely delicious! I was thinking of making something with figs too, but to be honest I'm quite happy just looking at your gorgeous fig shot...
September 14, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkeiko
I love figs!! I just bought some fig and ginger jam from Stonewall Kitchen and I can't wait to make some thumbprint jam cookies... YUM!
September 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChloe
Melissa! This is eerie. Are we on the same wavelength again? I just this afternoon looked at this Zuni Cafe cookbook recipe today. I've been perusing the book almost obsessively lately. Their chicken stock recipe is fantastic, gorgoues in its depth and clarity. And the other day I wrote a post about their chimichurri recipe, which has been making me happy for days. (The sauce, not the post.) I can't wait to make this now.

Figs are deeply sensual, an unexpected pleasure, every time. I love them broiled, with goat cheese. Five minutes to the easiest decadence you'll ever find.

And I feel exactly the same way you do about the passing of summer. I seem to be writing about it every day. Here in Seattle, the grey clouds are overtaking the pale blue sky. It's definitely autumn. I'm trying my hardest to love this.

I love any woman who uses the word ineffable (it might be my favorite word--I taught it to my juniors today!).

Okay, I'll stop writing now.
September 15, 2005 | Unregistered Commentershauna
hi melissa, the porcini peara sauce is absolutely divine dolloped onto plain grilled meats, or chicken, or vegetables...i could eat it by the spoonful ;) i also swear by her wonderful instructions for polenta - her ratio of water-to-polenta meal, her method of cooking (long and slow, followed by an unusual resting period in which the meal swells and softens some more), ensure a fabulously creamy and light-textured result second to none. the polenta with fresh corn variation is particularly scrumptious...
September 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Melissa,

This looks -- and sounds so scrumptious. I've never made anything with figs and have been wanting to; I saw some in the store last night and wondered what I'd make; now I know. Can't wait to try your recipe.
September 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCath
Chloe,

I just went to Stonewall Kitchen's headquarters / store in Maine last weekend. Some excellent stuff! I picked up a jar of pretty amazing roasted garlic and onion jam. Was going to also get a jar of hot pepper jelly, but I decided that was something I would make myself instead :)
September 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Machanic
Hi Keiko - Thanks, but please don't let me stop you! :)

Hi Chloe - Fig and ginger jam sounds lovely. I recently finished a jar of fig and orange blossom jam - it was heavenly!

Hi Shauna - Thanks for your lovely comment. Fall seems to bring out the cravings for Zuni food in all of us! I've made chimichurri before, but never Zuni's recipe - I'll have to take a look at in again. And your juniors are certainly in good hands - have you thought about introducing an assignment on food writing? ;)

Hi J - Thanks for the tips! I've eyeballed both of those recipes before, and now both are definitely going on the list. More perfect comforting fall food...

Hi Cath - Oh, there's so many wonderful things to do with figs! As a couple people have mentioned here, one of the easiest things to do is to cut them in half, spinkle with some extra sugar and put them under the broiler just until the sugar caramelizes, then serve them with something creamy (ricotta, mascarpone, yogurt, goat cheese) and drizzle the whole thing with honey. Of course the chicken dish is good too! ;)
September 16, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Hi Melissa,
First of all, thank you so much for the lovely things you had to say about "...an endless banquet" a couple of weeks back. We were very touched (we still are), even a little bit stunned, and we've got a couple of surprises (nice ones) planned for you, so stay tuned.

Secondly, this chicken with figs post was more than either of us could take. We're making it tonight! I can't wait, and we'll let you know how it turns out.

cheers!
September 16, 2005 | Unregistered Commenteraj kinik
Hi Melissa,
Zuni-Café-Chicken-Braised-with-Figs-Honey-and-Vinegar update:
so we didn't get around to making this dish as planned (or promised) on Friday, but we did make it tonight. We're forever indebted. What a perfect medley of flavors. Thank you.
September 20, 2005 | Unregistered Commenteraj kinik
Hi aj - I was happy to have the chance to mention your site, and I hope it brought some new readers your way! And I'm glad you enjoyed this recipe as much as me (thanks for letting me know!) - I daresay it's made its way into the permanent fall rotation over here...
September 20, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa

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