Monday, October 6, 2014

Feeling a Little Fruity
What’s cooking? Stuffed Figs with Prosciutto and Phyllo Tarts with Fruit and Ricotta

Kitchen Goddess Spoiler Alert: This post may be about figs, but the dessert recipe is très flexible and can work with almost any soft fruit. See for yourself...

It’s still fig season here in Texas, and I know from experience that it’s high season for them in Italy, so even if you’re not in Texas or Italy, there’s probably a market somewhere nearby where you can pick up a few figs. They emerge for a criminally short season, so catch them while you can.

10 Brown Turkey figs, 6 tiger Stripes, 4 green Sierras, 2 Black Mission figs, and a partridge in a pear tree.

I was first introduced to the fruit by my grandmother, who had two huge fig trees in her back yard. They took up most of the space that might otherwise have held a swing set, but it never really occurred to me that she should have swings instead of those marvelous trees. She made wickedly good preserves with them, using a recipe that died with her, but the way I most remember eating them was in a bowl with a bit of cream for breakfast. She peeled them for me; and while today I eat them with the skin on, in my heart, thoughts of figs are inextricably linked with my grandmother.

Fig trees in New Jersey weren’t in the cards unless you had the energy to move them inside every winter. I did not. But when my husband and I built our retirement house in Texas, I felt that I had to try growing one. We planted in an area that seemed just right, and when, over the next couple of years, no figs arrived, we moved it around to get better exposure to the sun. Still no fruit beyond a handful of “figlets” that never matured. Each fall, I’d sigh and hope for better luck the next year.

Then – miracle of miracles – I arrived back this September and found figs! Not too many (the local bird population seems also to have noticed), and not especially large; but I practically squealed with delight when I saw them. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get to serve some for breakfast to my grandchildren.

A Short Primer on Figs: Although fig trees are one of the first plants cultivated by humans, many unfortunate souls in the U.S. have never tasted the fruit. I think that’s because, generally speaking, figs aren’t pretty. They have an odd, bottom-heavy shape, and aside from the recently-available Tiger-stripe variety, they don’t come in eye-catching colors. The skin is smooth but not shiny. Yet they’re one of the richest plant sources of calcium and fiber, and high in antioxidants. The taste ranges from mildly sweet to sweet, with a delightfully silky flesh and tiny seeds that offer a friendly crunch and don’t stick in your teeth.

Figs are one of the most delicate fruits, and they don’t ripen off the tree. So if you come across some at a market, you want to look for ones that feel plump and just barely soft. Think of the best as Goldilocks fruit – not too hard and not too soft. Don’t pile them recklessly into a bag – be gentle. Then when you get them home, store them in a single layer in the fridge, on a paper towel-lined plate (covered with cellophane wrap) or in a shallow air-tight container, so they don’t dry out. Try to eat them within a couple of days. And just as a treat, pick one up and bite off everything short of the stem. Heavenly.

Let’s Get to the Eating Part, Please

Okay, okay – enough with the lecture. Today, I’m giving you a way to serve figs as an appetizer, and a dessert recipe that can use figs or many other soft fruits.

First up is the appetizer way. Possibly the most elegant dish you can put together in less than 15 minutes. I had a similar dish at a tiny restaurant in New Jersey, and even with my embellishments, it takes no time at all. This dish delivers a magical mix of flavors: sweet from the figs and honey, tart and tangy from the balsamic, and salty from the cheese and prosciutto. Add the range of textures -- creamy, crunchy, chewy -- and you've got an epicurean delight.

Stuffed Figs with Prosciutto

To serve 4.

12 fresh figs (any variety will do, though it’s easier with larger figs such as Tiger Stripe or Brown Turkey)
3 ounces fresh goat cheese or mild feta cheese (French or Bulgarian)
balsamic reduction (best) or balsamic vinegar*
4 ounces thinly sliced Prosciutto ham (12 slices)

Rinse the figs and pat dry with paper towels. Slice about ¼ inch off the tops of the figs, and cut the figs in quarters, slicing only halfway down the fruit so that the fig maintains its bulbous shape.

Stuff each fig with ½ teaspoon of the feta or goat cheese. Drizzle a few drops of balsamic reduction (or vinegar) on the cheese, followed by 2-3 drops of honey.

To do ahead: The figs can at this point be covered and refrigerated for serving later.

When ready to serve, place 3 figs on each plate and microwave for 20 seconds. Pile 3 slices of prosciutto together on each plate with the figs and serve immediately.

*Kitchen Goddess note on Balsamic Reduction: *There isn’t anything easier to make than balsamic reduction. Put 2 cups of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan, and turn on the heat. When you notice steam starting to rise off the vinegar, adjust the heat to keep that level. (No bubbles.) Allow the vinegar to steam for 2-3 hours (adjusting the heat level periodically), at which point it should have reduced to about ½ cup of a thick, syrupy liquid. If you can’t lower your heat enough, you may want to use a heat diffuser. Store the reduction in a jar or squeeze bottle in your pantry. Keeps indefinitely.

And now for the tarts. I’ll admit right off that phyllo pastry is a little tricky to work with. The first thing you have to know is that you buy it frozen and it needs to thaw overnight. The Kitchen Goddess got all primed to make these tarts one afternoon before realizing the overnight thaw business, and was forced to watch re-runs of “Bones” instead of cooking.

Kitchen Goddess note about Phyllo: Yes, it’s tricky. But not hard. It’s very important, though, to get your mise en place (a.k.a., organize your work space) before you start with the phyllo. The sheets are tissue paper thin, so they tear easily; but with a little practice – and the willingness to say “Screw it” to one sheet and start with another – you’ll be fine. Also, you should know that sheets can be patched together once you start with the butter. The Kitchen Goddess herself threw away four or five sheets before reaching a group that worked. But you get 20 sheets in a box for less than $4.00, so what the heck.

The other important point is that phyllo dries out quickly (i.e., becomes unusable), so you’ll need a damp kitchen towel to cover the sheets you’re not working with at the moment. That said,... (1) Let the box thaw overnight. (2) Remove the roll of phyllo sheets and unroll them carefully. (3) Peel off 7-8 sheets, one at a time, and lay them on top of each other to the side of your work surface. (4) Gently lay a damp kitchen towel on top of your “inventory” before re-rolling the remainder and storing them back in the packaging and back into the fridge or freezer. In the photo above, the sheets I’ll be using are under the green-and-white towel.

You can trust me that the results – light, flaky, not overly sweet but delicately delicious – are worth the trouble. David Tanis in The NY Times calls these pastries “a cross-cultural pleasure,... a French tartlet, but with Middle Eastern undertones.”

I want to note here that these pastries work equally as well with various other soft fruits as they do with figs. I tried the recipe with plumcots (shown above) and pears, and both were yummy. You’ll notice that the tart below has been cut in half, to show that you can make 12 smaller servings – for a brunch, say, or an afternoon tea. (You do serve tea in the afternoons, don’t you?)

If you want to do these ahead, I would assemble the pastry packages and refrigerate them between layers of wax paper in an air-tight container, then put the ricotta mixture and the cut fruit (perhaps with a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning) in two more containers in the fridge. Toast the almonds ahead and set aside. Assembly takes very little time. And by the way, I think these pastries would be stellar topped with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I didn’t have any around at the time. So someone should try that and let me know.

Phyllo Tarts with Fresh Fruit and Ricotta

Adapted from David Tanis in The New York Times

Serves 6.

For the ricotta filling:
1 cup ricotta (whole-milk or reduced fat – not skim)
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
⅛ teaspoon almond extract

For the pastry:
6 sheets phyllo dough (but have extras if one tears too much)
6-7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
12 ripe figs (or 3 large plums, plumcots, pears, or nectarines)
turbinado sugar (e.g., Sugar in the Raw) for sprinkling on top
½ cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons honey

To make the ricotta filling, combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the tarts.

Before you begin with the pastry, line a large baking sheet with baker’s parchment.

After fold #1
After fold #2
After fold #3
For the pastry, lay 1 sheet of phyllo dough on a flat surface, the long side toward you. (Note: hands should be dry when working with phyllo.) Brush it lightly all over with the melted butter. Fold the sheet in half, left to right, and brush the top with the butter. Fold again, top to bottom, and brush with butter. Finally, fold left to right again, and brush with butter. You should have a rectangle that’s about 4 inches by 6 inches. Move it to the baking sheet.

Repeat this process with the remaining 5 sheets of phyllo. When you have completed all 6 pastry packages, preheat the oven to 375º.

That's right -- only 4 here.
Spread a heaping tablespoon of ricotta mixture onto each of the phyllo packages, working so the ricotta doesn’t reach all the way to the edges. Cut figs about ¼ inch down from the stems, and slice them into quarters starting from the stem end and finishing just before you get to the bottom of the fig. Lay the cut figs out in a star shape on top of the phyllo, 2 figs per phyllo package. (If you’ll be using pears, plumcots, etc., slice them lengthwise into eighths and arrange 4 slices into a pinwheel pattern on the phyllo.)

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the turbinado sugar onto each pastry, and bake 15 minutes or until golden and crisp.

While the pastries are baking, toast the almonds in a dry sauté pan until lightly browned, about 5 minutes over medium heat. When the pastries are ready, remove them from the oven and sprinkle them with the almonds. Warm the honey briefly in the microwave and drizzle it lightly over the pastries. (The photo below was taken before the almonds and honey.)

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