One of the most fun things about being a chef is the spontaneity required when it comes to making up specials: the challenge is to make dishes that utilize what is plentiful and in season, and combining these foods with pantry items to create flavors that are new and exciting to our guests.
And while I prefer to use locally grown and produced ingredients both at home and in the restaurant kitchen, there are some things which simply do not grow in Ohio, at least not now. (As the climate changes over the next several decades, this may change somewhat.) So, I have no problem incorporating some exotica into the menu of specials we put out every night at Salaam.
Last week, Mark surprised me with a case of twelve fresh Calimyrna figs and asked me to come up with something to do with them for the weekend. These figs were huge, nearly as big around as my palm is, and smelled like flower nectar, with velvety green-gold skins. They were gorgeous, and I really wanted to come up with a recipe that would truly place them in a setting that was worthy of them.
I didn’t grow up eating figs in any form other than the ubiquitous Fig Newtons, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I even had a taste of a fresh one, straight off of the tree in my great-aunt’s backyard in Merritt Island, Florida. I was amazed at how honey-sweet it was, its fragrance, which to me, was like a field of wildflowers. It made quite an impression on me, and since that time, I have eaten figs, mostly in restaurants, prepared in various forms. One favorite was roasted, then stuffed with a bite of creamy Gorgonzola and wrapped in prosciutto, presented with a honey-balsamic vinegar reduction, and to be certain, I considered making a similar presentation at Salaam.
But, the Calimyrna fig has a thicker skin and is drier on the inside that other types of figs, so I determined that a dry cooking method such as roasting was probably not the way to go. So, I gave up on the idea of an appetizer and decided to go with a poached fig dessert.
Poaching is the process of cooking fragile foods like eggs, fish, fruit and poultry at a low, bare simmer between the temperatures of 160-185 degrees F. Calimyrna figs are very fragile and perishable, so much so that even though they are delicious fresh, most of them are dried or used in confections, so since we had lucked into a dozen of these very rare fresh fruits, I was determined to cook them as gently as physically possible.
Most fruits are poached in a liquid containing fruit juices, sweet or dry wines, sugar or honey and an acidic component such as lemon juice. For these figs, I used mostly local honey from the Cantrells at the Farmer’s Market, paired with pomegranate molasses, with is nothing more than the boiled down, concentrated juice of pomegranates. I added just enough water to make a nice liquid that was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, but also thin enough to still be fluid. I brought this mixture to a boil, and added about six cardamom pods, a one inch stick of cinnamon and five cloves. Then, I clapped a lid on the pot, turned the heat down and simmered it for about forty minutes, in order to give the spices plenty of time to add their flavors and aromas to the liquid.
Creamy, local chevre, with its sharp tang, I decided would be a perfect foil for the soft, honey-sweet figs; in order to give a slightly sweet flavor profile, I blended the softened cheese with a touch of honey and grated lemon zest. In order to keep the cheese soft and creamy, I also added a touch of heavy cream to the cheese mixture.
Finally, I wanted another local ingredient, and since blackberries are in season and plentiful, I decided on them. Their tartness went perfectly with the figs and lightly sweetened cheese, but just blackberry alone was too simple a flavor. So, I added some pomegranate juice and molasses to add depth and a pleasant crimson color, then after I thickened the sauce lightly with cornstarch, I finished it with a drizzle of rosewater, ending the sauce on a summery, floral note. The vivid red-violet color of the sauce contrasted perfectly with the green-golden figs.
Presenting the dessert in a clear martini glass gives it amazing visual appeal: it allows diners to clearly see every color of the layers perfectly. It also elevates the dessert, giving it height, which not only allows the diner to look at its beauty more fully, it also brings the subtle spice, honey, and floral aromas closer to their noses. Remember–we eat with our eyes first, and we sense flavor mostly with our noses, not our tongues. When you are dealing with delicate scents like these, it helps to elevate the food.
I was very pleased with how this dessert turned out–not only did I not have to fire up the oven, it turned out to be blissfully, sinfully sensual. It was gloriously decadent without being too heavy–perfect for a hot August evening.
2 cups honey
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
5 whole cloves
1″ stick Ceylon cinnamon
6 green cardamom pods
12 large fresh Calamyrna figs
10 ounces chevre, at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 quart fresh blackberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (I used Pom Wonderful, which you can buy at most grocery stores)
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water or pomegranate juice
rosewater to taste (I used about a teaspoon)
Mint sprigs for garnish
Put honey, water, pomegranate molasses and spices together into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, turn down heat and allow to simmer very slowly for thirty to forty minutes in order to extract the flavors of the spices. Turn off heat, cover and allow to sit for two hours.
Turn heat on under the saucepan and bring to a very, very slow simmer. Add figs, about three or four at a time–however many will fit in your pan without crowding them or piling them on top of each other. Cook figs for about six minutes, then using a slotted spoon, gently remove them and set them on a plate to cool. Repeat until all figs are cooked and are on the plate, cooling.
Strain spices from the poaching syrup, and allow to cool completely. Pack figs into a storage container gently, and pour syrup over them. Cover tightly and keep in the refrigerator until needed–up to two days.
Meanwhile, blend together the chevre, lemon zest, honey and cream until well blended. Beat lightly by hand or with a mixer in order to incorporate a small amount of air. Cover and keep in fridge until needed. Right before service, remove from fridge and allow to sit at room temperature so that the cheese can soften back up.
Now, make the blackberry sauce: Pick over berries and remove any bruised fruits and stem bits. Put into a saucepan and sprinkle with sugar. Once the liquid comes out of the blackberries, put on medium heat, and add pomegranate juice and molasses. Simmer until the juice is reduced slightly and fruits are softened. Bring to a boil.
Blend together the cornstarch with either water or pomegranate juice, and pour into the sauce. Stir until the sauce thickens, then remove from heat and add rosewater right away. Cool, and put into a tightly covered container until service–you can make this up to two days ahead, just like everything else.
To assemble the dessert, take about a tablespoon and a half of the chevre mixture, and roll lightly in a ball. Drizzle about two teaspoons of the syrup from the figs in the bottom of a martini glass, then place the chevre ball on top. Mash the cheese down lightly, and drizzle with a tiny string of fig syrup.
Take out one fig, cut off the pointed tip of the fig, and then gently cut the fig into four quarters, cutting from the top to the bottom of the fruit. Set these four pieces in the glass shaped like an open flower.
Make another, larger sized version of the cheese ball you made for the base, and place it into the center of the fig flower. Add a dollup of cheese on top of the chevre that is at the center of the fig in order to give the dessert and artfully composed, yet natural looking air.
Then drizzle with the blackberry sauce and crown the finished dessert with a sprig of mint.
Clean any excessive drips of syrup of sauce from the glass and repeat these steps as necessary to assemble all the desserts you need.
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