Thursday, September 15, 2011
Fresh Figs with Fleur de Sel, Aged Balsamic & Hazelnuts
Nursery school just began, and I am proving even less adept at the transition than previous evidence had suggested I might be. I have a few things in the works, but in the meantime, can I just say that the figs are magnificent this year? Nary a tannic, dry disappointment in sight. I've been making this dish a lot - tonight actually as dinner in its entirety, along with a fresh wedge of Cantalet and a glass of Malbec. It was soul-restoring perfection.
Although Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought figs to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, the fruit wasn’t really grown in Northeastern U.S. until the 1800s when Mediterranean families moving to the States nursed cuttings all the way across the Atlantic to plant in their new gardens. These days locally grown fruit is available for a small window each year, though it’s still rare to see figs at a farmer’s market here. The harvest tends to come a little later than in the northern Mediterranean – it usually starts towards the end of August or in early September.
I like my fresh figs with as little done to them as possible. In fact, I far prefer them raw to cooked. Though I’m often tempted to try new fig recipes, I have yet to be convinced that there is any way to improve on the light sweetness of a perfectly ripe fruit – perhaps slightly split by its own fecundity and often weeping a little honeyed nectar from its blossom end. Ferociously pink and very nearly liquid within, and with a floral fragrance reminiscent of both blossoms and earth, tree-ripened figs are something I dream of all year. And I can’t see why I’d want to mask their perfection with cooking.
Of course, when celebrating such a short and longed-for harvest, it’s only human nature to feel an urge to adorn. So I’ve come up with a number of preparations that make a platter of fresh figs seem more of an event – why isn’t this country more comfortable with serving a bowl of perfectly ripe seasonal fruit at the end of a meal? Why doesn’t it seem like enough to most of us?
I’m not sure, but this is my compromise. The syrupy twang of good aged balsamic vinegar and the gently floral flavor of fleur de sel meld with the juicy interior of the opened figs. And the toasted hazelnuts layer a faint autumnal smokiness over the whole thing. It’s one of my favorite late-summer/early-autumn desserts and a lovely way to end a meal.
¼ cup hazelnuts
1 lb ripe figs (I like to use green figs here, such as Calimyrna), rinsed and patted dry
good quality aged balsamic vinegar – should be thick and sweet
fleur de sel or other good sea salt
Preheat the oven to 300 F.
Spread the hazelnuts in a small baking tray or dish and roast for 15 – 20 minutes until lightly browned and fragrant. Be very careful not to burn them. Once slightly cooled, chop the hazelnuts or pulse them a few times in the food processor.
Trim any stems from the figs. With a sharp knife, gently score an “X” on the top of each fig, being careful not to cut more than ¾ of the way down the fruit. Press your fingers into the base of the fruit until the 4 “petals” you have created open to expose the pink center.
Arrange the figs on a platter. Drizzle with a little aged balsamic, sprinkle with a little fleur de sel, and finish by showering with some of the toasted hazelnuts – you may not need them all. Serve immediately.