Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Seasonal Ménage à Trois: Fresh Figs

The term ménage à trois evokes clandestine meetings, guilty pleasures and hot, steamy…ovens? My kitchen has been host to a series of luscious encounters as I launch a new regular feature on Mingling, the Seasonal Ménage à Trois. Every few weeks I will post a trio of recipes starring one seasonal ingredient at the peak of its culinary possibility.

The purpose of this feature is to tease out the freshest recipe ideas and make the most out of seasonal produce before it is gone. All too often, Spring will pass me by, and I’ve hardly had the chance to steam a few stalks of asparagus. To counteract such a folly, I leave myself beholden to you to take full advantage of the season’s offerings. I will aim to include one main course, one dessert and one wild card dish. I will strive for creative uses of my star ingredient, but will not entirely forsake classic choices like rhubarb pie or spring pea soup. Of course, even with classics there is room to deviate from the norm. So join me as I explore forbidden farm stands in search of plump berries, bitter greens and other objects of seasonal desire.

For the first ménage, I chose one of my personal obsessions, fresh figs. I am saddened by how few people have actually tasted these sweet little gems. My favorite variety, the Black Mission Fig, looks like a swollen tear drop that, when soft and ripe, is utterly pregnant with tiny seeds held together by sticky-sweet pulp. You can eat the skin as well as the seeds, which are not grainy like kiwi seeds, but provide a little texture for the rich flesh. They usually turn up in markets in midsummer and can be found into September. As soon as I live in place with sufficient space and the right climate, I will grow my own fig trees and, hopefully, feast on the glut of my harvest.

Now is no time for daydreaming, as I have three glorious fig dishes to share with you. I will begin with the dessert because I had been itching to make it for weeks as I waited for my market to put out a supply of figs that would be beautiful enough to justify a foray into the world of pastry. I consider myself more of a cook than a baker, but I am coming to appreciate the patience and care required of the pastry chef. I wanted to create a simple fig tart that would showcase their light ruby flesh in a substantial and wholesome shell. I wanted to pair the figs with goat cheese, glaze them, and bake the whole thing to add some caramelization to the already sweet fruit. I could not find any one recipe that approximated my vision, so I took ideas from several and left the rest to my own invention. For the crust, I used a recipe for a fig tart from that ran in Gourmet. I loved the addition of the cornmeal and fresh rosemary to the tart shell, but I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for half of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe. Whole wheat pastry flour is so light that you can hardly tell any difference in baked goods. Next time, I will use a higher ratio of whole wheat to white flour in this recipe. I searched for goat cheese tarts and got some inspiration from an Ina Garten recipe, but ended up reworking it and adding a bit of ricotta to the goat cheese. I topped it off with a glaze of honey and red currant jelly from the Gourmet recipe.

I have to be honest and admit that this was my very first tart. I was sure it would be disastrous, but I am thrilled to say that my Fig and Goat Cheese Tart was a success! The dough was easy to work with and the end result was a lovely, not-too-sweet union of figs and cheese in a pleasantly hearty shell. It could be a dessert after a light meal or a midday treat. The tart kept for 4 days in the refrigerator, and only tasted better to me over time.

Fig and Goat Cheese Tart
Serves 8-10. You will need a 9 to 11 inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the tart shell:
¾ c. all-purpose flour
¾ c. whole wheat pastry flour
½ c. fine yellow cornmeal (not stone ground)
1 tblsp. sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1 stick cold butter, chopped into pieces
1 ½ tblsp. fresh rosemary, chopped or ¾ tblsp. dried
4 tblsp. ice water plus more as needed

For the filling:
8 oz. goat cheese
½ c. ricotta cheese
1 egg
¼ tsp. salt
¼ c. cream or half & half
1 lb. fresh figs, trimmed and sliced crosswise
1 tblsp. honey
2 tblsp. red currant jelly

Make the shell: Preheat oven to 425. Add the flours, cornmeal, sugar and salt to a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter (straight from the fridge) and rosemary. Process until the mixture resembles a coarse meal with little clumps of butter still visible. Add the 4 tblsp. of water and pulse until just combined. Pinch a bit of dough with your fingers. If the dough holds together, it is done. Otherwise add a bit more water, a half tablespoon at a time, until your dough just holds together. It should still be fairly dry and may seem a bit crumbly. As long as it holds together, you’ll be fine. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured cutting board and bring it together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Roll the dough into a large disc, about 1/8 inch thick. Then roll the dough so it is draped over the rolling pin and lay it back out over your tart pan. Gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and into the fluted sides. If your dough looks like a bit of a patchwork because it did not roll into a perfect circle, don’t worry. Once it is filled, no one will know. Run your rolling pin over the sharp edges of the pan to cut away any excess dough. Place the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. Remove your shell from the freezer and prick all over with a fork. Put it on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes or until firm and just barely starting to brown. If the bottom of the tart starts to bubble up during baking, just prick the spot with a fork. Cool completely in the tart pan, then add the filling.

Make the filling: Preheat oven to 350. Add the goat cheese, ricotta, egg, salt and cream to the food processor. Process until you reach a smooth consistency. Transfer the goat cheese mixture to the cooled tart shell and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Arrange the figs in concentric circles starting at the outside of the tart and working your way to the center. Add the honey and red currant jelly to a saucepan over low heat. Cook stirring frequently until melted and combined. Use a pastry brush to dot the glaze all over the figs. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cheese is firm and the figs are softened. The glaze will bleed around the edges of the shell, but you will not have a soggy tart as the dough is incredibly firm and resilient. Cool on a wire rack, remove the tart from the pan and serve warm or at room temperature. Keeps tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

My next dish was an idea that I tried during fig season last year. This year, I managed to improve upon it tremendously and will make it again soon, perhaps with variations if figs are no longer available. I made my Feta-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Fig Sauce on a week night after work, and had the whole thing done in 30 minutes (with Mike’s help). Stuffing chicken breasts is a great, simple technique to jazz up your basic boneless, skinless fillets. I used a long, slim boning knife to cut horizontally into each chicken breast, creating a pocket that I filled with crumbled feta and caramelized red onions. I used a cast iron skillet to brown the stuffed chicken breasts, then put them into the oven to finish while I made a fig and red wine sauce in the skillet. At the last minute, Mike sautéed up a mound of spinach and we were done.

Feta-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Fig Sauce
Serves 4

3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Salt and fresh ground pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat
½ c. feta cheese, crumbled
8 fresh figs, trimmed, halved lengthwise and chopped into sixths
1-1/2 c. red wine (shiraz, malbec, zinfandel or a blend will work well)
1 tblsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tblsp. cornstarch mixed with 1/3 c. water
1 bag baby spinach, thick stems removed

Preheat oven to 350. Heat 1 tblsp. of the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly caramelized. Set aside. Cut a horizontal slit in each chicken breast to create a pocket. Season each fillet with salt and pepper and stuff with all the feta cheese and half of the caramelized onions. Reserve the remaining onions to add to your sautéed spinach. Heat 1 tblsp. of the oil in a skillet (I like cast iron.) over medium-high and add the stuffed chicken breasts. Sear until the chicken is browned, about 4 minutes, then turn and sear the other side for 3 to 4 minutes. Place the chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes or until juices run clear when pierced with a knife in the thickest part of the fillet.

While the chicken bakes, make the fig sauce. Turn the heat under your skillet to low. Add the figs, let them sear for 30 seconds, then add the wine. Bring to a simmer, increasing the heat slightly if necessary, and simmer until reduced by nearly half. Add the balsamic vinegar, then add 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch mixture. Stir to incorporate. The sauce should thicken slightly. If you want a thicker consistency, add one tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired thickness. I generally add about 3 tablespoons. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, add the rest of the oil to your nonstick skillet and heat over medium. Just when the chicken comes out of the oven, add the spinach and the reserved onions. Season with a little salt and pepper and sauté until the spinach is wilted, about 3 minutes. Place a mound of spinach on each plate and put a chicken breast to the side of spinach. Spoon the fig sauce over the chicken, drizzle a little around the plate and serve.

The stuffed chicken breasts being seared in my cast iron skillet.

Reducing the wine to made the fig sauce.

The fig sauce was luxurious and the cooking method resulted in flavorful, moist chicken. You must try this at home!

Finally, I would like to offer you one of Mike’s and my old favorites, Fig Pizza. We were inspired by the signature fig pizza that Todd English serves at his restaurant, Figs, in Boston. His version uses a fig jam, but we love the fresh ones. You can use any prepared pizza dough you like, but do try making it yourself. It is one of the most simple and gratifying things. Pizza dough is the first thing I ever made with yeast. I was very anxious about it, but now I know to always have extra on hand in case my yeast doesn’t proof on the first try. Trust me, you will feel like a domestic goddess (or an Italian cassanova) if you start turning out homemade gourmet pizza for your friends. Each batch of dough is enough for two thin-crust pies, so you’ll get two dinners for the price of one. I lazily put together the dough the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight instead of doing the second rising at room temperature. After work, we had a gorgeous fig pizza in under 30 minutes. I have to mention that Mike did make pizzas in his college dining hall for a couple semesters, so that may be one reason why our dough consistently turns out so well, according to him.

Fig Pizza
Serves 2-3
Adapted from Curtis Aikens for Food Network

For pizza dough:
1 ¼ c. warm water
1 tblsp. granulated sugar
1 package dry yeast
2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tblsp. honey

Pour the water into a bowl, add the sugar, then gently stir in the yeast for just a few seconds. Let it sit in a warm place (like on your stove top) for several minutes or until the yeast forms a foamy layer on the surface of the water. Add the flours, salt, olive oil, honey and the yeast mixture to a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until the dough comes together, forming a ball. This should only take 1 to 2 minutes. If your ingredients get stuck, you may need to open take off the lid and move them around a bit so they can come together properly. Place the ball of dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and lay a kitchen towel on top. Let it sit until the dough doubles in bulk, about 45 minutes. I find that warm conditions are best for baking with yeast, so if you like to blast your air conditioner, you might want to turn it off while the dough rises.

Put the dough on a lightly floured cutting board and knead for 1 to 2 minutes. Divide the dough into two equal balls. If you want to bake the dough that day, let it rise for the second time on the cutting board, covered with a kitchen towel, for an hour and a half, then proceed with the pizza. Otherwise, place the cutting board with the balls of dough in the refrigerator covered with a kitchen towel overnight. In the morning, you can wrap each one in plastic wrap to use that night, or you can freeze them. Defrost in the refrigerator or for 2 hours at room temperature.

More beautiful figs.

Roll the dough directly on the parchment so it can go straight into the oven.

For fig pizza:
3 tblsp. coarsely ground yellow cornmeal
1 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
8-10 figs, trimmed and chopped
8 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into bite-size pieces
3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
¼ c. basil, finely chopped
freshly ground pepper

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Roll one ball of pizza dough out on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the cornmeal onto a large sheet of parchment paper and roll the dough out into a roughly 16-inch oval right on the parchment. This is my method for coating the bottom of the pizza with cornmeal. The parchment paper also allows you to transfer the large pizza onto the pizza stone in the oven. Use any method that works for you. The dough should be rolled quite thinly (less than 1/8 of an inch) and an irregular oval shape is fine. Drizzle the olive oil over the dough and spread it around with your hand. Top the pizza with the remaining ingredients, reserving half the basil for the finished pie. Transfer the pizza to the oven by lifting the parchment paper and placing the paper directly onto the pizza stone. Bake for 10 minutes or until the edges start to brown. Sprinkle with remaining basil and serve immediately.

Our pizza toppers.

I hope you enjoyed this first Seasonal Ménage à Trois as much as we did. Fresh figs inspired me to begin this series. It is fun to get your creative juices flowing in order to derive as much pleasure as possible from one fleeting ingredient. I encourage you to experiment a little too. Who knows where it could lead…

Be sure to look for my next Seasonal Ménage à Trois as well as more new features to come on Mingling.


christine said...

Very nice blog! Good writing, fabulous recipes. Glad I found you.

doodles said...

julie nice blog - thanks for stopping by PBE. Since we live in the same general area - where might I ask are you finding these wonderful figs. The tart looks like something we would love.

Raspil said...

that was a treat to read.

Anonymous said...

now which to choose?
I bought a large box of fresh figs yesterday -I have never had them fresh but they were so pretty I could not resist!
I will start with the first tart recipe. It is full of my favorite things! staci

Anonymous said...

I am trying to find out if canned figs can be used instead of fresh figs in most recipes? I don't have any more room in my freezer for freezing figs!

Julie said...

Anonymous: I personally wouldn't try freezing figs, because it would probably mess up their fabulous texture--they're so delicate. I have never seen canned figs, so I can't speak to that question. Dried figs work in a lot of recipes, though. You may need to do some experimenting.

Anonymous said...

mouth watering recipes, and parchment paper for transferring the pizza to the stone is ingenious

Pepcycle said...

Quick and almost foolproof.

I took the liberty of adding garlic scapes to the spinach.

Thanks for the suggestion

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to try these recipes! (but must wait at least a bit until I buy the figs, of course :) ) ... Each one sounds totally divine!

One question on the chicken recipe: are you sauteeing the spinach in the fig sauce, or sauteeing it in its own separate pan (and leaving the fig sauce strictly for the chicken) ?


Paula M.

Julie said...

Paula: I'm sauteeing the spinach separately. Thanks for reading!