The Happy Nexus of Salty, Sweet, Crunchy, and Fatty
My friend Dana walked into the office overburdened with boxes of perfectly ripe Kadota figs that her father grew. Knowing I would gladly take some, she handed me a rather large box then walked away to her desk. Figs have such a short, intense season that you need to be ready with a game plan to handle the sweet onslaught.
At first, I was a bit at a loss for what to make. I hadn’t planned on these figs, they just appeared like a newborn left on a church doorstep in the dark of night. The box sat in my cubicle staring at me all day. I tried to ignore them, occasionally succumbing to eat a few of the riper ones. I even googled ‘what to do with too many figs’ and came across numerous sites describing the same anguish I was feeling. One gentleman wrote in an aptly named thread ‘Too Many Figs’ on Chowhound: “I bought a young fig tree, and three years later she was almost in tears when facing the huge harvest. To keep matrimonial harmony, I cut down the tree.”
Then it struck me, I remembered I had a friend’s pig roast to attend and could make a large platter one epic dish. First world fig problem solved. My favorite go-to dish is figs wrapped in prosciutto (or Iberico ham or jambon cru) and kataifi, baked then filled with goat cheese (or homemade labneh) and drizzled with lavender honey that I have made so many times since discovering the recipe in chef Greg Malouf’s ‘Arabesque‘.
THE HAPPY NEXUS OF SALTY, CRUNCHY, SWEET, AND FATTY
The dish is the perfect nexus of salty, sweet, crunchy, and fatty that I so adore. To break it down culinarily let’s turn to Chef Gray Kunz who wrote a fantastic book called “The Elements of Taste”. He describes his concept of the 14 basic elements of taste broken down into three basic categories that perform on four basic taste stages. Gray’s taste experience is defined by a three-part process: aroma, mouth taste and finally texture.
Texture acts as a culinary punctuation. Crunch is a stop signal, one taste ends and another begins. Fat acts as commas disseminating tastes by spreading it across your palate and carrying the aromas to your nose. Texture and fat are not flavor components, only punctuations. You need punctuations to fully appreciate food.
Tastes that Push are salty, sweet and picante. Gray describes this “Like a wave approaching the shore or a wind blowing across the Plains, they push everything forward.” Remove any one of these and the dish becomes flat and boring. They heighten all other tastes in a dish. Salt is number one by a long shot. Our reaction to it may have come from the fact that life evolved from the sea. Sweet is important because it can hit you upfront in your palate but more importantly, it rounds off the sharp edges of pungent spices like cloves, or tangy flavors like citrus and mellows salinity. Piquant flavors hit you differently. They react with your pain sensors rather than your taste buds. Pain and pleasure are linked.
Tastes that Pull are tangy, vinted, bulby, floral and herby, aromatic and funky. These are tastes that bring every flavor forward with them. Tangy or sour tastes like vinegar and lemon juice make you pucker. Instead of rounding out flavors, tangy makes things brighter. Think of lemon with shellfish. You pop open an oyster, squeeze a bit of lemon on to it and it brightens the briny flavors. Funky tastes are a broad category that does not necessarily have a common thread other than everything in it is funky or stinky. Think of great cheeses like Epoisses, Vacherin, or Munster; think of black truffles or even aged hams. Funky flavors ground food. They bring us back to our origins. “It’s the same primal tension between base matter and lofty spirituality that makes us human.”
BAKED FIGS RECIPE
Today’s post celebrates the baked figs I have previously written about with an added twist. I videotaped the entire process offering both a long 20-minute version where I show my wife Lisa how to make this favorite. And a shortened 1-minute version for impatient people like me who just want to get to the good stuff.
Lisa and I are embarking on a new series of cooking videos that I hope you will subscribe to. We are going to present simple cuisine from both the standpoint as a 30-year veteran of professional kitchens and my wife Lisa who has literally cooked 15 times in 15 years, and not on my birthday.
THE LONG VERSION OF OUR VIDEO RECIPE:
This is a great party dish because you can prepare everything the day before, then pop it into the oven for ten minutes and serve. Even the finicky eaters will adore it!
Prep Time 5 minutes, Cook Time 10 minutes
- 1 fig per person
- 1 slice Iberico ham per person
- 1 box kataifi, see note
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ ounce goat cheese per person
- 1 tiny sprig rosemary/thyme per person
- black pepper
- Cut the tip of the fig off where the stem connects then, using a paring knife, make a cross in the exposed flesh. This will look beautiful and give a great spot to the spoon goat cheese.
- Wrap a single slice Iberico ham around the base of each fig.
- Remove kataifi from packaging, and try your best to straighten it out.
- Sprinkle a little bit of olive oil over the pasta-like strands, and wrap around the base of the fig leaving some of the ham showing.
- Arrange in an ovenproof dish, drizzle with remaining olive oil and pop into a 450 degrees oven, till browned, about ten minutes.
- Remove from oven, and put a spoonful of goat cheese on top then garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a grind or two of black pepper.
Kataifi is an extruded dough that has mistakenly been called shredded filo. It can be found in middle eastern markets and certain larger grocery stores. Kataifi is a widely used dough in both the middle east and Greece.
Feel free to substitute any air-dried ham like prosciutto or Bayonne. If your figs aren’t very sweet then drizzle a little lavender honey after they are roasted.
This recipe was inspired by one of the world’s great unsung chefs, Greg Malouf.
Sweet, Salty, Fatty, and Crunchy are Friends!