Figs photo by James Ormsby
Figs are sexy. Why? Is it their smooth, barely downy skin, so much like a soft cheek? Is it their plump, curvy shape, swerving out and in like a hip or breast you can surreptitiously palm right there in the produce aisle? Is it the drop of nectar that drips from the flower end at the moment of perfect readiness? Unlike the other fruit of our late summer, the plums and peaches, the raspberries and early apples, figs are all seedy lushness. There is no sweet-tangy snap, no whiplash between sugar and acid. Instead, figs are fleshy, breaking apart easily against the tongue, an odalisque who needs no convincing to roll back and give in.
Which makes gilding the lily, or the fig, even more alluring. A naked fig is nice, but a fig burnished with pomegranate syrup, rolled in prosciutto, and stuffed with a pinkie’s worth of goat or blue cheese, is divine.
Tracing the genesis of a recipe that you think is original is always an entertaining exercise in the anxiety of influence.
I’d cede the original concept to a fabulous salad of grilled fig, arugula, and pancetta dressed with a port and fig-vinegar vinaigrette that I had at The Girl & the Fig restaurant, back in Glen Ellen sometime in the late 90s.
Then there was the cold plate of figs and proscuitto shared with a date at an Italian restaurant in New York City on a balmy summer night some ten years later. Good, we agreed, but it could be better. A month or so later, my old pal Bucky and I ended up at the posh Brandy Library bar in Tribeca, sipping Ukiah’s Germain-Robin XO brandy and nibbling what the kitchen there had dubbed Figs & Pigs, in which heat had definitely been applied to said proscuitto and figs, to fine effect.
Hitching a ride along the way was my fondness, nay, obsession with pomegranate molasses, the perfect way to add a fruity zing to earthy vegetables, like beets, which are all sweetness with no snap.
Finally, it all came together in my Brooklyn living room, late summer 2005. I invited the Italian-restaurant date home for my own version of Figs & Pigs. September figs, maybe Black Missions or Kadotas, were cut crosswise halfway through and plumped with a nubbin of cheese, soft goat for me, blue for her. Then the figs were tightly swaddled with a strip of proscuitto and perched on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Meanwhile, a half-and-half mixture of balsamic vinegar and pomegranate molassses was simmering on the stove over medium heat, bubbling down to a runny syrup. When it was just slightly thickened, it was drizzled lightly over the figs, the whole tray then popped into a hot oven, about 400 degrees. A few minutes, 5 at the most, and the fig were oozing and yielding, the cheese slightly melted and the syrup just sticky.
Out of the oven, onto a plate, they were drizzled with more syrup and served one by one from my hand to her lips while reclining on the couch.
And if there’s another appetizer that can more emphatically assure that you’ll never get to the main course, I haven’t met it.