Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Fulfillment of Figs

I'm taking a break from death cleaning for the moment, primarily because the accidental garden has come up with an abundance of figs, for the first time in I can't count how many years.

Usually I get a couple that I can just eat off the tree, being sure to say shehecheyanu (even though I'm not religious, I like to thank the universe for cool stuff that happens) before enjoying my first (and perhaps only) fig of the season.

Once upon a time, when there were two fig trees in the garden, I'd still not get many, but more than I have lately with the one survivor. The other one, near where the compost bins are now, apparently didn't get enough sun and finally just sort of fell apart. So I've really only had one surfeit of figs in the past, while I was still teaching, and it provided enough for making fig confit--a couple of jars of which I gave my favorite chefs at the Institution. If I can ever find the recipe I'll insert it back in here, but all I could find through the google machine were essentially for fig jam.

Almost the first thing I did when we got back from our road trip to California was to check the fig tree, since it had been pretty full of promise when we left. I was rather afraid that the Tree Rats would have demolished the baby figs, as they're currently doing with the baby pecans, but luck was with us and they were all still there. So I made sure the tree got watered if it didn't rain, and have been rewarded with a bumper crop. Just this week I've managed to produce a fig tart, a fig and caramelized onion pizza, and just a few minutes ago, fig and pecan muffins (with pecans I harvested last fall and froze). Recipes will follow, below, but first, a short disquisition on the wonder of figs.

My Grandma Clarice just loved figs. I wasn't much of a fan, but it was because of her affection for them (and my affection for her) that I even tried the ones from my own trees when our first harvest occurred the summer we moved into this house. As it turns out, figs are among the world's most healthful foods, and are amazingly versatile as well. They're sweet, but not cloyingly so (unless they get so ripe that they turn into jam on their own), and full of fiber, so eating them makes one feel virtuous, as well as having one's sweet tooth satisfied.

Artists have loved figs at least since Roman times, and there's a rather nice depiction of a basket of them from a fresco in a villa at Oplontis, which I used to show in my Humanities classes to keep my culinary students interested.

Figs are mentioned in numerous ancient texts, from Sumerian tablets to the Bible. I wouldn't be surprised if figs weren't what got Eve in trouble, since they were abundant in the Middle East, whereas apples were not. The Roman cookbook writer Apicius recommends preserving figs in honey, and I'm thinking of trying that by placing a few of my extras in a small jar and covering them with some of the Owens Valley honey we brought back with us in June.

So this is what I've got so far. The results have all been tasty, and easy to produce. But I'm not a recipe person, so you'll have to use your own judgement when it comes to amounts.

Fresh Fig and Almond Tart

I used one Trader Joe's All Butter Puff Pastry roll for this. I stock up on them in the fall when they're available, and use them for making tarts with seasonal fruit. To make this tart, place the pastry on a piece of baking parchment, and brush it with melted butter. Then use a honey-dipper to drizzle honey over that. Quarter enough figs (about 20 small ones?) to cover the top fairly densely, and then drizzle more honey. Sprinkle slivered almonds liberally.

Bake at 400F for about 15 minutes, but check after about 10. It might take as long as 20, depending on your oven. Let cool and cut into six or eight squares. You can also divide the pastry into squares before you put the figs on if you want to feed more people or create a prettier result.

Fresh Fig, Caramelized Onion, and Feta Pizza

Although I preach incessantly about making your own pizza dough, this is high summer in north Texas and my kitchen is not air conditioned. Enter, once again, Trader Joe's, where I can get two very nice organic pizza shells (Monteli Organic) to keep in the freezer for Just Such An Occasion. Do not defrost them; in fact, don't even take them out of the freezer until you're ready to load them up.

You'll also need a large sweet onion, most of a box of real Greek feta in brine (Trader Joe's, Costco, and Whole Foods, as well as most decent supermarkets carry it; pre-crumbled feta is a poor substitute), a few herbs (Proven├žal herbs work well, but so do thyme and rosemary--fresh if you've got them), and a little balsamic vinegar (optional).

If you're using the Monteli shells, preheat the oven to 420F. If using your usual crust, do whatever you usually do.

Slice the onion thinly, and slowly fry it in butter and/or olive oil until it begins to brown. Add a teaspoon of herbs of Provence, and a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar and turn off the heat under the onions.


Quarter a bunch of figs (I truly cannot remember how many I used on each pie, but if you're really concerned about the number, you can count them, above) and set aside. Get the feta out of the fridge, but don't crumble it yet, unless you know about how much you'll need.

Get the pizza shells out, and spread half the onions on each one. Then arrange the figs fairly densely on top, and then crumble the feta over them. 

Place the pies directly on the rack. Cook for about 15 minutes, but check frequently to make sure nothing's burning. The ones I made the other night needed 20 minutes.

This is more or less how they should look:

Fresh Fig and Pecan Muffins

These turned out really well. I combined several generic muffin recipes and came up with these ingredients:
  • 2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4-1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup brown or turbinado sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup plain yoghurt
  • 3/4 cup avocado oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped figs
Mix all the dry ingredients together thoroughly; in a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients (egg through figs) and then add them to the dry slowly, without beating: just enough to incorporate everything. Muffin batter is lumpy by nature, so don't try to make it smooth.

Divide the mixture evenly into twelve muffin cups. It's going to look like a lot, but these don't rise all that much, so you can stuff the cups. Most muffin recipes will tell you to butter the muffin cups if you use them, but I discovered that I had a box of silicone cups that are not only reusable, but they release the muffins beautifully. I sprinkled a little bit of vanilla sugar on each muffin for a little extra flavor burst. A little more brown sugar will work well for that, too.

Bake at 350F for 25 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. These are not terribly sweet, so you can feel really virtuous about eating all that high quality fiber. If you want to enhance the pecan flavor a bit, toast them before you add them to the muffin mixture.


 I still have quite a few figs left over, and will have to either freeze them or use them in something else yummy in the next day or so. I have in mind to try the recipe for Fresh Fig Breakfast Cake from the  Indigo Scones blog, but the results will have to wait.

Image notes: all of the photos are mine, except for the Oplonto fresco, which comes from Wikimedia Commons. The opening shot is a cheap excuse to link this post to Skywatch Friday, which I hope everyone who comes here will visit because the weekly sky photos from around the world are terrific.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Curating One's Life, Part 1

As a result my infrequent, and generally unsuccessful attempts to jumpstart this blog, ideas about potential post topics flit through this old brain like so many bits of paper in a tornado. But I have been thinking lately about the whole process of organizing one's life so that one can, as one ages, make some sense of it. I even got a book for the Kindle app on my iPad to inspire me: Margareta Rasmussen's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Scribner, 2018). The whole thing is far less morbid than one might expect, and because I'm a natural born snark I love mentioning it to people, and offending their delicate sensibilities.

The truth is, that I'm genetically predisposed to be a gatherer. My mother's name was Hoard, after all, and she lived up to it. And I'm still facing the prospect of going through yet more of her stuff next week as we finally tackle The Great Garage Clean Out. The poor woman has been dead for twenty years and I'm still doing her death cleaning.

Having decided not to put my children through this, I've started tackling small tasks that can help me sort things out in an organized way, and even if my kids don't want to keep my stuff, at least it will be more or less catalogued so that they might be able to fob it off on somebody who actually wants it.

Take my vast collection of past issues of the British Edition of Country Living magazine. My poor husband has been hauling this stash (well, at least the pre-2000 collection; it was mixed in with a complete collection of Martha Stewart Living, until I finally went through those and recycled 90% of the content) every time we've moved since 1988. The first issue I own was bought in London in 1987, and I've been an irregular purchaser ever since. Since 2013 I've subscribed electronically through Zinio, but before then I had amassed 181 issues, including twelve issues of Countryside, an American knockoff that only lasted a couple of years, and to which I subscribed in Chicago until it stopped publication--about four issues after I'd sent in the check.

Now why, you might ask, would an old desert rat, exiled in north Texas, hold such affection for a British shelter magazine when there are more than enough locally relevant publications around here (also available as e-zines these days) to keep any homebody happy. Well there are quite a few, and I subscribe to a number of them, but even those tend to be published in Australia or Canada rather than in the USA, unless they're like Eating Well or holdovers from my hippie days like Mother Earth News and centered on sustainable eating and living.

The thing about Country Living UK, however, is that it has always been focused on stuff I'm a sucker for: rustic design, sustainability, smallholding, countryside, Aga (and other) ranges, Smeg refrigerators, and old creaky houses with personality and a need for TLC.

I once had a dear friend from the Hampshire city of Portsmouth, who thought I was completely bonkers because I had this bizarre (to her) sense of style and taste that meshed far more with the Country Living aesthetic than did her own. She died some years ago, but she would be equally dismayed by my loyalty to the BBC show, "Escape to the Country," watched loyally by the Beloved Spouse and me whenever we can find an episode on YouTube we haven't yet seen.

In my own defense, I have to say that I come by this proclivity genetically. The results of my Ancestry DNA test showed me to be far more British than anything. A smidgen of German and Dutch, but all the rest English, Irish, Scottish and maybe a little Welsh. Even the tad of Scandinavian that showed up in the first go-round (as more data comes in, the picture becomes clearer) has disappeared. (There was a short article in the last update with advice on how to get one's Viking tattoo removed.) And all those Brits mostly went to Canada before they moved south and west, so there's no escaping the Commonwealth.

I'm still trying to locate the origins of some of the ancestors, but have no great urge to find any lost royalty or famous folk. But since they all seem to be from villages rather than cities, I suppose that accounts for my affection for open spaces (although not too heavily treed), and for windy wastes and Thomas Hardy novels.

So today I managed to locate all of the old issues scattered about in bins and cubbies around the house, and have divided them roughly into seasons (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec) and will rotate them in appropriate stacks onto the bottom shelf of the stand next to my comfy chair where I can re-enjoy them seasonally and perhaps get inspired to do something other than pine away for the lochs and firths.

My last post extolled the virtues of curatorial apps, and my adventures on Pinterest have been especially helpful. One reason why we'll never have to haul boxes of magazine clippings around again (aside from the probability that we won't be moving anywhere) is that all the inspiring images I used to collect are now neatly housed on some sixty boards sorted into terribly clever and artful categories, able to be consulted on any whim.

That is, at least, until the EMP hits and I spend the rest of my life regretting having tipped all those interesting, inspiring old articles into the recycle bin during the latest spasm of Death Cleaning.

Image note: All of the Country Living issues during the first sort-through. The cat tried to keep me company on the table, but soon left in disgust, all of the bare spots having been taken up by magazines. Taken on the iPhone.