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.
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)
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.