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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

French Travel Tales: Figs and Finches

It was only a few weeks ago that we were merrily on the road to Fig-dom. For figgys have made me into a little piggy; at least in terms of staring up into our tree's branches and pointing and squealing with delight. I measured when the swelling fruit would be ready. "When, fig, when?" I sang with abandon. My bowl was ready for figs to plop off the tree. Oh, yes! There would be salads. I started the wood oven too, as vision of fig and Parmesan flat-breads danced in my head. My figs would not go to waste. (I was getting awfully possessive, wasn't I?) They would not litter the ground. No, no.

For who doesn't love figs? Wait. You share this obsession, right?

It was way, way back in the early nineties when we first set foot in the South, that my fig-lust was born. Figs appeared at the beginning of summer and again at the end, if I was lucky, at the Carrboro Market. And they appeared on the menus at Crook's Corner. At home we split and filled them with goat cheese and just pulled arugula and the new little basil from the garden. Or we wet them with good balsamic vinegar then smashed them into  crispy bits of sauteed country ham, burning our fingers as we crammed the glorious salty sweet figs in our mouths. They never made it into cooked dishes unless you count throwing them in a roasting pan ala minute or laying them in a fragrant tart shell with creme and Roquefort. 

But in 2003 in Provence my Fig-Lust grew. On our Teen Chef Tours, we often spied and twice as often stole, as many plump bursting figs as we could. 

Teens in Provence

Whenever we came to the olive oil producer, the Chateau Neuf du Pape Place, or the Maven du Chevre - we scoured the walkways looking for the prolific trees with beautiful hand-shaped leaves and glowing in the sun fruit. In particular there was a fig tree in St. Remy, near Joel Durand's Chocolatier. 

Joel Durand's Chocolaterie in St. Remy

C'mon, wasn't pilfering figs a necessary and ancient tradition worth sharing? Worth teaching? So many Teens had never tasted a ripe fig; it was my duty. Their only previous experience was a sad fig newton, which of course counts as-not-even-close-jack. So it was in France that my fig-love became a firmly rooted seasonal affective disorder. Figs were everywhere. In fact there were so many fig trees that rarely would you see figs sold at market. No not there! What self-respecting French person worth their Roquefort would buy them? They had their own perfectly lovely  trees, Merci! or knew plenty of trees nearby. But not so fast. The Figgy situation is tricky in North Carolina, which is considered a wee bit far north of the fig-zone of South Carolina and Georgia.  

I won't go all garden techy on you with talk of zones 7 and 8 with northbound exposure or lowest tolerable nighttime temperature for Monsieur and Madame Fig, mostly because I can't. It took me YEARS to understand the calculations which revealed which part of C'est si Bon! received the most hours of sun during any hour of the day (or night??) 

No, I preferred a method based on something much more accessible and certain to work. I somehow thought, no kidding, I really did, that if I loved figs enough and wanted those dear charming figs enough that that karmic energy was all that was necessary to growing fat and happy figs. (My husband Rich will be rolling his eyes just about now, as he is the one who does most - er, all- of the hard work in the garden) Over ten years ago I bought our first little trees, brought them home while singing quite silly songs in the car, and we planted them with all sorts of petite endearments and adoration near the then, newly hatched C'est si Bon!  

Without so much as a flutter, I thought, they weathered winter. Yay! We were on our way to Jolly Fig-dom. I looked out the window and waved Merry Christmas as flakes of snow packed into snowballs. Then, their thin twigs blackened just in time for Easter. But there was no rebirth for my Figs it seemed.

We tried again and planted two trees on the south side of the house facing the old chicken coops. And every early spring I would stomp out of the house as Rich geared up the saw. Rich wanted to thwack and whack the trees back to just ten to twelve feet tall. What and crush their spirit, I said? And so the trunks grew and the branches looked like, well, branches with  capitol B. Finally this year in late winter/early spring I noticed that one of our fig trees was loaded with a few swelling orbs of green flesh. As the weeks got warmer I saw quite literally dozens (a word I never thought would apply to our fig crop) of figs. Okay, they had heard me. Now what would I do that I was about to receive this bounty? I read. And learned that when the fig droops on the tree it is ripe and ready to eat. Were they drooping? No. It was not yet time. By this time the second tree had lots of little knobs of figs too. More time when by. One Month to be exact. The very long month of May. A couple of weeks ago we stretched a ladder up into the tree. Most of the figs were just too darn hard.

But there were a few. A few. We've had a grand total of three figs so far.

 Three Little Figs Went to Market

Two Figs On Our Tree

One that was overripe.
One that was perfect (split between five of us)
And one that was sacrificed way too early.
We folded the ladder and leaned it against the tree. Then I turned my head slightly, listening to the breezes and the rains. In less than a week all the large figs were gone. Are gone. Birds, I think, are responsible, but who can blame them?

After all this wishing and hoping - all that remains on the branches are the smallest buds of new figs. They look tempting. Even a gold finch agrees. She sits on the branch twelve feet above, looking at me and at the fig.
I sighed. Its off to market to find some figs.

Here is one very fine meal for all fig-lovers!

Fig, Apple, and Pecan Salad

What a beautiful salad! Red apples, purple skinned figs, deep green lettuce and shiny caramel pecans. By all means bring the salad to the table to let your guests help with the tossing and the dressing.

serves 4-6

for the dressing:
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

for the salad
2 firm apples, cored and coarsely chopped
5 fresh figs, sliced crosswise in 4 slices
1 head green leaf lettuce, washed, and torn in bite size pieces

for the caramelized pecans
1 cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Begin by caramelizing the pecans in a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When hot add the pecans. toss in the salt and sugar and crushed red pepper.  Continue stirring over medium heat until the sugar melts and forms a shiny caramel glaze.  Remove to a buttered plate. When cool, break up into pieces.

Prepare the dressing in the bottom of a pretty salad bowl by whisking the balsamic and the olive oil with a fork. add salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste. Then heap the apples and the figs in the dressing. these can stay at room temperature for up to two hours. At serving time tear the washed lettuce and place on top of the apple/fig mixture. Bring the salad to the table and add in pecans. Toss well and serve on individual salad plates. 

Fig and Garlic Stuffed Chicken

This dish shows off both fresh and dried figs. Nutty brown rice is perfection with the dense dried figs. Fresh figs frolic in the bottom of the roasting pan during the last 15 minutes of oven time to make a fabulous fig au jus.

for the chicken
1 4 pound roasting chicken
olive oil
freshly cracked black pepper and coriander seed

for the stuffing
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh fennel or celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped
6 dried figs, coarsely chopped and steeped in warm chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice

for the roasting pan
4 carrots, pared and coarsely chopped
1 handful each fresh parsley and tarragon
4 fresh figs, coarsely chopped

Most important is to prepare the stuffing so it can cool prior to being placed inside the uncooked chicken. Begin by heating the chopped dried figs with 1/2 cup of chicken stock in a small pan over medium heat. Let steep for 20 minutes.

To make the stuffing heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when hot add the onion, fennel or celery, the crushed coriander seed and the garlic.  Sauté until the onions are translucent and the garlic and coriander are fragrant. Add the now rehydrated figs and chicken stock to the pan, mixing well. Cook for another 2-3 minutes and then stir in the cooked brown rice. Combine well together and cool in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight. 

When ready to roast the chicken preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Coarsely chop the carrots, parsley, and tarragon and place in the roasting pan. remove the stuffing and the chicken from the refrigerator. Fill the cavity of the chicken with the stuffing. rub olive oil, salt, coriander seed and pepper over the bird and place on the carrots and company.

Place in the 450 degree preheated oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and roast for an additional 1 1/2 - 2 hours or until tender. 

When the chicken has been in the oven for an hour and fifteen minutes add the fresh chopped figs to the bottom of the pan. Continue roasting.  When the chicken is done, remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes prior to serving.  Remove the stuffing from the chicken.  Spoon the roasted figs, parsley, tarragon and carrots onto a serving platter. cut the chicken into serving pieces and arrange on top of the roasted loveliness. serve immediately.

Fresh Fig Tart with Roquefort

This tart is the grand, grand, finale.  The simple honey crème with the salty roquefort so compliments the sweet flesh. Just remember to not over work the tart dough and you'll be golden! 

makes one 10 inch tart, serves 8-10

for the crust
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt

for the crème
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces sour cream
1/4 cup honey, or more to taste

for the finished tart
5-6 medium figs, sliced crosswise
3 ounces roquefort cheese

Butter and flour the a 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom. then, in the work bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel knife, process the flour with the butter. remove the cover of the food processor and sprinkle the ice water over the crumbs. Replace the lid and process with 2-3 short pulses or just until the dough forms small clumps in the work bowl.  

At this point remove the lid and gather up the dough. Set the bowl aside to make the honey crème. Pat dough into a flattened disc and either roll out now with a rolling pin or wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator to roll later.

Either way, while the dough is chilling make the honey crème. In the work bowl of the food processor place the sour cream, cream cheese, and the honey. Process until completely smooth. remove from the work bowl with the help of a rubber spatula. Store in covered container in the refrigerator until ready to assemble tart.

When ready to bake the crust preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Dust the table and the rolling pin lightly with flour. Roll the flattened disk into a round shape 1/4 inch thick and transfer to the buttered tart pan. Trim off any excess and prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. remove from the oven and cool completely on a rack. 

The tart may be assembled up to one hour prior to serving.  It only takes a few minutes to assemble at the table if you choose. When assembling, either at the table or in the kitchen, you’ll need the baked and cooled tart shell, the honey crème, the roquefort cheese, and the sliced figs on a plate. Spread the tart shell with the honey crème and lay the figs on top, seeded side up.  place a small crumble of Roquefort in the center of each slice of fig.  Slice and serve.
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