Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Figs and Sweet Cheeks on the Roof

I found these beautiful ripe figs this afternoon. They were so inviting, so purple and perfect and ready to play. They were practically begging me to take them home and do something fabulous with them.

I thought of slicing them, drizzling them with a little aged balsamic vinegar and calling it a day. I considered broiling them open-faced with a dab of goat cheese on top or wrapping them in prosciutto. But when I found a sweet little speckled dinosaur plum which seemed ready to jump into my basket of its own volition, I decided that what the figs really needed was for me to turn them into a salad of note. And I knew just the perfect recipe was waiting for me in one of my favorite cookbooks, Sunday Suppers At Lucques by Suzanne Goin.

(See, this isn’t JUST a dessert-related blog! Trust me, I have quite a few savory tricks up my sleeves.)

I always think of figs as transitional fruits, creating a bridge between the stone fruits of summer to the apples and pears of autumn. Every year I always pray that cherry season will last just through mid-August so that I can have fresh cherries on my birthday, and sometimes I get lucky. It is always a very sad day for me when I no longer find my beloved cherries at the fruit stands, but figs are a consolation to me as the summer ends. Just when cherries disappear from view, the figs appear in all of their dusky purple splendor, and I always am glad to see them in their little baskets at the markets. They are quite friendly and play well with others, but I think they especially pair nicely with plums and nectarines. And that is just what they did tonight.

This is the first recipe I ever made from my Sunday Suppers book, and I love it. Sometimes the simplest things are best, for what could be simpler than combining baby arugula leaves with the ripest late summer fruits available to you? You toss it with a vinaigrette made by mashing up a few of the ripe figs and blending them with great olive oil and sherry vinegar, with a bit of minced shallot thrown in to keep it interesting. That in itself would be a most enticing salad, but it goes to a whole new level when you scatter Marcona almonds over the top. (Marcona almonds are the totally addictive Spanish almonds that have been blanched and roasted in oil and salt. Talk about a luxury item! They are becoming more readily available, and I know that you can definitely find them at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.)

I had Julie and Sylvia over tonight for dinner on my wonderful roof deck. In another week or two it will be too cold to spend any extended time outside, but for now I’m trying to squeeze as many evenings on the deck while I can.

Check out the view, and the sky was very dramatic with all the clouds swirling around.

Sylvia brought cheese from the Grafton Cheese Factory, freshly procured after her tour of their factory this morning.

I sliced the most beautiful Honeycrisp apple to go with our cheddar assortment. I think we agreed that the maple-smoked was our favorite cheese, but I thought the sage one really gave the smoked cheddar a run for its money.

We opened a delightful bottle of Pinot Fusion, a Pinot Noir/Cabernet Franc blend from the Sweet Cheeks winery in Crow, Oregon! There was much laughter highlighting the evening, as is always the case when either Julie or Sylvia are present. We thoroughly enjoyed the wine, we loved the cheddar tasting, and we REALLY loved that fig and arugula salad!

If you had told my 11-year-old self once upon a time that she would someday get so excited about a salad the way I did tonight, I know she wouldn’t have believed you. Then again, I think the 11-year-old Louise also might not have believed that she would become a professional violinist, so go figure. Stranger things have happened, and besides, my 11-year-old self never tasted a salad quite like this one! I invite you all to go find the most luscious figs that you can get your hands on and make this without delay.

adapted from Sunday Suppers At Lucques by Suzanne Goin

2 Tablespoons finely diced shallot
3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar
12 fresh figs, stems removed and cut in half (I quartered mine)
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ripe plums
8 ounces arugula, cleaned and dried
½ lemon, for juicing
2/3 cup Marcona almonds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the shallot, vinegar and ½ teaspoon salt in a bowl, and let sit 5 minutes.

Use a mortar and pestle to pound three fig halves to a coarse puree. Transfer the fig puree to the shallot mixture, and whisk in the olive oil.

Cut the plums in half and remove the pits, slicing them into ¼-inch-thick slices. Place the sliced fruit and remaining figs in a large bowl. Drizzle half of the vinaigrette over the fruit, and season with salt and pepper. Gently toss in the arugula, sprinkle in some more salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning, adding more vinaigrette and a squeeze of lemon if needed.

Arrange on a large platter and sprinkle the nuts on top. Makes 4 large or 6 smaller servings.

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