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Thursday, September 1, 2011

French Travel Tales: Fig Duel in Provence

Mary James in Provence and I are set for a friendly duel of fruit; at thirty paces from the nearest fig tree, frying pans at the ready, our most divine fig dishes in our hands and heart. She is in Provence, I am in Chapel Hill, NC. We ask you to visit both blogs and then comment on which is your favorite fig fixin'.

No one, certainly not I, can deny the pure sensuality of the fig. Its true, I was attracted to its swollen purple belly bursting with red seeds the moment your (my?) teeth sink into its tender flesh.

Back in July, in all that heat and humidness, I made a first foray into fig-land; figs-from-our-tree land. Since then, I have learned a lot.

I learned that figs only grow on  a tree's new growth.

So Close, and Yet

Since figs stubbornly grow on new growth, and our trees had gotten quite tall; we could only reach them while standing on the roof. The figs in the middle branches– about twenty feet from the ground, were more of a puzzle. But we, in the south, are wily creatures and figured out to use a boat hook to pull the branches down to us. Sometimes we had to fight the squirrels and the birds.

I learned that on any given tree, the figs ripen at different times.

Well, duh, this only made sense. And this was good news, and I feel rather sheepish even to admit not realizing it before, but such was my fig fever. Since  our figs didn’t all ripen on the ONE day I was away, the happy surprise is that we still have figs that even Irene didn't claim. 

Fig Tart, Before the Oven

I learned that the flowers of the fig tree are inside the fruit and figs are pollinated by a female wasp who enters the fig through a tiny hole in its "belly." 

What? It's true and there's more to that story, but we'll move on.

In my novel, City of Ladies, the lore of the fig tree plays a role in Eleone's journey. The fig tree is thought of as the Tree if Life and Knowledge. To Eleone's maman it was the Tree of Desire and Birth.  

I learned that figs have always been coveted. 

And local and not so local friends twitter (and just plain jabber) about their “crop” (how large is a crop of figs? is a fig in the hand worth two on the top of the tree?) What does one do with a crop of figs?

In North Carolina and the south the fig has a long history. Fig preserves, jam, and cake all top the list. 

I learned Fig Dish was a 1990's Rock Band in Chicago. 

But back to figs and eating. I already knew that fig season is unbearably short. But it’s the best kind of unbearable shivery tension. You notice trees dotted with ripe yellow orbs as you drive by, and you hear (along with the crash of cars) more rumors of trees loaded with figs on obscure country roads. And like all the best stories, these tales stay with you long after you comprehend your good fortune to find your hands full of warm figs. 

Fig Tart, After the Oven
(For this recipe please visit a previous post)

Figs are the best example of local and seasonal. When they’re done, they're gone until, you guessed it, next year.

So please visit my friend, Mary James Lawrence's blog in Provence gentle readers, and tell us what you like best! Or tell us your favorite fig dishes.

Face the luscious days of fall like the birds, and enjoy a meal of figs. 

At Long Last, Figs.

Chorizo and Caramelized Onion Figs
The sweet hot nature of this dish is stunning. Makes a very nice tapas, appetizer, first course or as a cute little distraction from a salad.

½ pound chorizo removed from the casing
1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon raw sugar
1 pound fresh figs, halved
¼ pound thin sliced prosciutto
1/4 cup of dry sherry

In a heavy skillet, cook chorizo until majority of oil is released. Drain chorizo on to a paper towel discard the rendered oil. In the unwashed skillet on low heat add all onions and cook until translucent and a light caramel color. Sprinkle with sugar and add in garlic and cook until translucent. Add sherry and reduce. Add to the cooled chorizo, combine well. Cool mixture and then, using a tablespoon, fill the halved figs with mixture. Wrap each filled fig with a thin slice of prosciutto and place on a baking sheet. Bake figs in a 350 oven for 10 minutes, until ham is crispy.

Sourdough Focaccia with Rosemary, Figs, and Parmesan
Oh this is good, so good! It is worth the time to make the starter. C'mon, just try it!

The starter:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 package or 2 t. Dry yeast
2 ½ cups lukewarm water

Start the starter:
One full day, 24 hours before you’d like to eat/serve your focaccia make the starter. This will make more than you need for the recipe, but once you make it you can go directly to the “final mix” stage of the recipe.

Choose a large crockery bowl. Place the flour in and make a well in the center. Add the yeast and water and gradually stir to mix well. Then incorporate the flour, until well combined. Beat until smooth, using a fork is fine. Cover with a towel in a warm draft free place for 24 hours.

Remove the 2 cups you need for the recipe. 

Feed the starter and store it away.
1 cup mixed flour (no more than 1/3 of the cup should be “other” flour. For example i have used millet, amaranth, whole wheat, rye, garbanzo bean, or even rice flour.)
1/2 cup water.

To keep your starter healthy, feed it every day. And when you use it, replace the amount you took away. If a clear liquid forms on top, just stir it in, but if it turns pink, the starter has spoiled.  Throw it away.

For the final focaccia:
2 cups of sour dough starter
4 cups warm water
Drizzle of honey
¼ cup olive oil
1 scant tablespoon yeast, optional (if you can give the dough another 24 hours in the fridge to rise, you may leave out the yeast)
4 - 6 cups more flour

For topping:
Olive oil
Lots of sea salt
1-2 teaspoons fresh chopped rosemary
8 fresh figs, halved
½ cup shredded parmesan cheeses

Begin by adding 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water and the yeast, if using, to the 1 cup of starter in the bowl. Stir until well-combined. Add the salt and enough flour and water (1 cup at a time) to make a thick mass of dough which is difficult to stir. Turn dough out on a floured surface and using a dough scraper at first, “knead” in the remaining flour if needed, until the dough is firm and smooth. Let this dough rise on the table for about an hour, taking 2 if you can. At this point also, you can store the dough in the fridge for a 24 hour slow rise.

If you went with a long slow rise in the fridge and didn't add in extra yeast, the dough will not rise as much as a "normal" yeast bread would.  

Remove dough from fridge for one hour to come to room temperature when you wish to finish and bake it. Pick up from here.

Prepare the pan for baking:
Use a large baking sheet with sides, pour on olive oil and using a paper towel or your clean hands spread the oil around so the pan is adequately covered. Punch down the dough and transfer it to the oiled pan. Push the dough down to spread it, but do not stretch it, be gentle, using your hands, pressing it into the shape of the baking sheet. Let rise another 30 - 60 minutes if possible.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Top the focaccia:
With the olive oil, salt and chopped rosemary, figs, and parmesan cheese. Bake until firm and a rich caramel color. 20-25 minutes. Cool as much as you can on a wired rack, then cut in squares.

Great served as is with olive oil for dipping or with a salad or a bowl of soup.  

Figgy Chicken Salad with Red Curry and Caramelized Pecans

Serves 4

8 fresh figs, quartered
2 cups cooked chicken, chopped
2 sweet roasted red peppers, chopped
1 head romaine, washed and chopped
1 bunch each fresh mint, basil, and cilantro, washed and chopped
(reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish)

1 tablespoon red curry paste, more or less to taste
1 cup greek style yogurt
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
Juice and zest of 1 lemon and orange
1 tablespoon each chopped peanuts, coconut, and raisins
Freshly ground black and white peppercorns

Caramelized Pecans
1 cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons salted butter
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 and add the pecans.  Toss in the butter and add 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.

Ready the Salad Ingredients
Quarter the figs, and chop the chicken, peppers, herbs and lettuce and place in a pretty salad bowl.

Mix the dressing ingredients 
Add them together in another bowl, whisk well. Then pour over the salad ingredients. Mix gently.

Serve on individual plates garnished with the extra herbs and the caramelized pecans.

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