Consider the fig. It is a harbinger of the season to come. The chill it forebodes rests lightly on the back of my tongue every time I enjoy a quarter, or, a greedy fat half. Medjool, Mission, Calimyrna all influenced by terroir, sun, slope. This year, I have fallen in love with the humble fig, yet it’s November- they quickly disappear into the hoarfrost.
Every change of the leaves and windchill brings a new harvest: fiddleheads and nettles in spring give way to sugar snaps, tomatillos, chioggias, plums, nectarines, melons- then fall. Pumpkins usher in costumes and revelry while goosebump-clad partygoers bob for Braeburns. The white truffles from Alba take the edge off the cold. Turnips and other tubers fortify many a winter stock until the first asparagus nudge their way back into vendors’ baskets at market.
But now, the swan song of the fig. Did you know figs are flowers, not fruit? Tragically beautiful- they bloom on the inside. They are lovely in salads, both composee and au natural. They make a piquant dressing when reduced with balsamic and jus. If you wish to fashion pirate ship antipasti, use figs as the hull, Marcona almond slivers as the mast, and wedge in wisps of manchego for the sails. Their versatility is unparalleled; they can play nicely with sugar and spice but love to be tossed into mirepoix dice.
I first tasted the trembling flesh of a common southern California fig (I do not recall the variety) when I was nine, in a backyard in San Bernardino tucked into Oleander groves. I had just emerged from the pool and my eyes smarted from chemical burn. My parents were embroiled in a sloppy divorce I thought I caused, so I was shipped off to the aunts while the minutiae got sorted. They indulged me with root beer floats, long lounges in the floating chaise sans sunscreen, and extended viewings of MTV- something I had never heard of until then. I must have watched Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” 600 times that summer.
One day, a few months before my Uncle’s fatal heart attack, he came home from his long-haul shift conducting an Amtrack train and walked straight to the backyard where we lollygaggers were enjoying dips and sun. He handed me a whole, dusty fig. I palmed it, thinking it was some sort of Cracker Jack jewel. He showed me how to break it apart with my hands, exposing the milky petals and wet sweet. I closed my eyes, took a bite, and luckily (!) it was a perfect fig- the best I’ve ever eaten. I was addicted. I was indulged. They were not known for their cooking- that side of the family- but I made do. I put figs on everything. Takeout burritos from El Pollo Loco to hodgepodge casseroles- hold the guacamole. That is where I first discovered the rare ability of the fig to transcend genre. The fig is versatile, like that politic dinner guest you often invite when you need to diffuse the room.
This recipe is for a Spanish-inspired salad using the fig in two of her best incarnations- raw and quartered as well as reduced into dressing along with balsamic. I prepare the accompanying chicken en sous vide before I pan fry it in the bacon fat, but you could also bake it in a low oven after drenching it in the rub.
Spanish Salad Featuring Figs and Chicken en SousVide
3 hours inactive time, 1/2 hour active time
- 4 organic boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 2 tsp Spanish paprika
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- Zest of one lemon
- ½ c balsamic vinegar
- 12 figs
- ¼ lb bacon, chopped
- 1/3 c Marcona almonds
- 1/8 lb Manchego cheese shavings
- 1 lb baby spinach
- Heat the sous vide water bath to 165°F. Rub the chicken breasts with the paprika, salt, garlic powder and lemon. Seal them in food-grade bags and place them in the water bath for 3 hours.
- Place the balsamic, 6 halved figs, and the juices from the chicken in a small saucepan. Bring to boil, then allow to reduce to a syrupy consistency- about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, fry the bacon in a skillet. Remove bacon and reserve. Cut the chicken into strips and pan-fry it for 1 minute in the remaining bacon fat.
- Wrap the Marcona almonds in aluminum foil and warm in a low temperature oven for 10 minutes.
- Quarter the remaining figs.
- To compose the salad, start with a bed of spinach. Top with the chicken, bacon, Manchego shavings, quartered figs, and warm almonds. Drizzle the reduced balsamic/fig mixture over it, and enjoy.