The first time I incorporated figs in savory dishes was when I saw this very recipe in Judy Rodger’s The Zuni Cafe book. Apparently, identifying good figs is an annual ritual at Zuni. Here is an excerpt in Judy’s own words about knowing when a fig is just right:
“Look at them. Feel them. Plump can be good, but not unless they are really heavy for their size and they need to be tender.”
A tentative squeeze.
“Taste it. How is it? And that cracked one. It’s kind of light, but check anyway. How about that one, it looks flawless, and it’s heavy, but it is kind of hard. Taste it.”
After a wary nibble, “Taste it, it’s not that great.”
“Now look at that one. Shrunken and wrinkled is actually good, as long as it is heavy. ‘Pristine’ is usually not a good sign. If you look at pretty, you may miss the best ones. Just keep on tasting until you can tell. And then try to remember how ‘that look’ and ‘that feel’ taste.”
Now if that does not make you want to go out and buy a couple of figs, I don’t know what will.
I love the ease of braised dishes. Unlike baking or pastry, exact measurements are not necessary. It’s all a matter of taste. Braising temperatures and time are important though if you want to attain tender meat. I do find that for chicken, 375 F for 30-40 minutes is a pretty good setting. For beef and lamb, I usually set it at 300 F for at least 2 hours.
Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar
From The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
For 4 servings
4 chicken legs (8 to 9 ounces each)
about 2 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
about ½ cup dry white wine
about 2 tbs. dry white vermouth
about ½ cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
a sprig of fresh thyme
a few black peppercorns, barely cracked in a mortar
about 2 tbs cider vinegar
about 1 tbs. of honey
8 to 10 ripe figs
Seasoning the chicken. (12 to 24 hours in advance). Trim excess fat and season chicken evenly all over (about ¾ teaspoon salt per pound of chicken). Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Cooking the chicken.
Preheat the oven to 375 F
Pat the chicken legs dry; this will make them less likely to stick. Heat a scan 2 tbs. of olive oil in a 12 –inch skillet over medium-low heat, then add he chicken legs, skin side down. The oil should sizzle, not pop explosively, when you add the chicken. Adjusting the heat as necessary, cook until the skin is golden, about 8 minutes. Turn the legs over and color only slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes. Pour off the fat.
If your skillet is ovenproof, arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the chicken legs; otherwise, transfer the chicken to a shallow flameproof braising dish that will easily hold the chicken and onions in a single layer. Add the wine, the vermouth, and enough stock to come to a depth of about ½ inch. Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black peppercorns.
Place, uncovered, in the oven, and cook until the meat is tender but not quite falling off the bone, about 40 minutes. The exposed skin will have turned golden and crispy; the liquid ought to have reduced by about half. Remove from the oven and set on a slight tilt so the fat will collect at one side of the pan.
Combine the vinegar and honey and warm lightly. Taste. The vinegar should dominate, but without making you squint. Trim the stems and cut the figs in half.
Skim as much fat as possible from the braising liquid, then set the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Distribute the figs evenly around the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of the vinegar-honey syrup, and swirl the pan to diffuse the bubbling, amber syrup without smashing the tender fruit. The sauce will be glossy. Taste- it should be vibrantly sour-sweet. Add more, or all of the syrup to taste. The vinegar adds a bright but unstable note of acidity, which will fade with boiling, so simmer for only a minute or less.
I find this dish very versatile. You can just take this idea and add your own spin on it. I have tried this with dried figs and it worked out perfectly. I really think the finishing touch of the honey-vinegar mixture is the kicker that pushes this dish beyond being ordinary. Judy advises against using lavender honey because it is too persuasive (I guess she meant overpowering).
Oh, and don’t forget to have some nice peasant bread to sop up the sauce!