Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Giving a fig
My family owned a separate property about 25 minutes drive from our house. Although my aunt and her children had once lived at the house on the property, by the time I was growing up, the house was abandoned and falling down. Out the side of the house was an old windmill, a rusty trough filled with water and two lovely big old fig trees. Year after year they would produce big crops of figs, which would be quickly devoured by birds.
The farm was at a tiny locality called Bearii near the Murray River. It now has a small township but in those days it was little more than a telephone exchange and a dusty road leading to the river, so there were no neighbours to come and help themelves. Occasionally we would go and pick big buckets to turn into fig jam.
One of the share houses that I lived in as a student had a big fig tree in the backyard but we never did anything with the fruit except curse it for the stains it left on our washing when an overripe fig would fall from the tree.
Now that my palate is more refined, I've learned to love the fig and not waste the succulent fruit. It partners equally well with sweet or savoury and goes particularly well with prosciutto, fresh white cheese, goat's cheese, blue cheese, chocolate and spices such as cinnamon and ginger.
According to Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion, the fig tree is one of the oldest plants in civilisation. It's mentioned in stories about the ancient world and its mythology - the fig tree was the Tree of Life to the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks regarded it as a fertility symbol. Stephanie also says that fig trees "seem to be amazingly tolerant of neglect. The domesticated fig tree (Ficus carica) is hardy and will flourish in a range of climates." Our tree definitely bears this out, as no-one ever watered it or cared for it, yet it managed to produce crops year after year.
My friend Janet recently gave away her excess figs. She lined them up in cane baskets and invited us to take as many as we wished. I selected eight plump, juicy figs and took them home. Ripe figs perish very quickly but will last about two days in the fridge. I didn't have enough to make jam so I decided to try a new and unusual recipe that caught my eye in The Cook's Companion: fig and caramelised onion pizza.
Don't be daunted by the different steps involved in the preparation, as the entire dish is easy (but you'll just need to allow the time). The finished product is a delectable combination of flavours: the sweetish figs and onions are nicely offset by the salty tang of the blue cheese.
FIG AND CARAMELISED ONION PIZZA
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 quantity of pizza dough (recipe follows - or buy pita or Lebanese bread)
1/2 cup caramelised onions
100g fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
4 ripe figs, unpeeled and thickly sliced
1 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary
salt and pepper
150g blue cheese (such as gorgonzola or Gippsland blue) or washed-rind cheese (such as taleggio, munster or Milawa gold)
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Roll out the pizza dough and put onto a pizza stone or a baking tray lined with baking paper. Smear over the caramelised onions and cover with mozzarella and figs. Sprinkle with rosemary and sea salt, grind over pepper and dot with the cheese. Drizzle with one tablespoon of olive oil if you like and bake for 15 minutes until the edges are crisp and the cheese is bubbling. Serve on a bed of rocket leaves.
Quarter or slice 20 peeled small or pickling onions. Put in a heavy-based frying pan with 1/2 cup olive oil (note - decrease quantity if you find this too oily), 1 bay leaf and 1 sprig of rosemary. Place on a medium heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes until the onion has begun to soften, stirring frequently. Remove the cover and continue to cook, stirring, until the onion has separated and started to turn a rich caramel brown. It's important to stir frequently to prevent sticking. The onion and oil will keep in a covered container in the fridge for several days.
Recipes from The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander
Don't be daunted by yeast. The best tip I can give is that you need to cook often with yeast, as your confidence and technique improve the more you use it.
450g strong white flour (eg type 00)
1 teaspoon salt
7g yeast sachet
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
250ml warm water
1 extra teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Sprinkle the dried yeast over the warm water and leave 10-15 minutes until bubbles appear on the surface. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl (or on a clean workbench) and make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture, then the extra virgin olive oil and start drawing in the flour with a fork, until the dough forms in a mass. Tip onto a floured surface and knead firmly for 10 minutes until smooth, pushing dough away with the heel of your hand as you pull the rest closer to you, and turning the dough a quarter-turn each time.
Cut into quarters. Shape into balls and coat lightly with a little olive oil. Place in a clean bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place for 1-1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
If making the caramelised fig and onion pizza, follow the instructions above. If not, preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius. Roll out the dough to 1cm thick in a round or abstract shape and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Add your chosen topping and bake for 10 minutes, or until risen at the edges and lightly golden.
Recipe adapted from Jill Dupleix