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14 September 2009

pickled figs

the pickled figs are ready

When I was eight, I sat at the piano, my fingers arched like spiders' long legs above the keys, trying to hit all the notes correctly. For years I had asked for piano lessons, imagining the joy of sitting at the keyboard like Stevie Wonder, pounding away and bobbing my head. Instead, my teacher droned on about music theory before he ever let me touch the keys. And my fear of doing things incorrectly meant I didn't really practice, which meant I never progressed beyond the first grade book of the John Thompson modern course for the piano.

I haven't touched the piano in a couple of decades now.

Baseball? I could hit a whizzing triple down the third base line nearly every time I stood at the plate. And don't bother trying to hit one past me at first base. I'd reach above my head and snag that line drive, then step triumphantly on the base before the surprised runner could turn back and hide. Double play, unassisted. I loved it every time.

But there's no improvisation in baseball. The lines are straight, the rules are clear, and one team always wins.

Cooking, however, is one big improvisation around central themes. For years, I thought that good cooking meant finding the right recipe and following it exactly. This made me an uptight cook, chopping garlic with a rigid intensity, my fingers arched like they were on that keyboard. That's not good cooking.

Sure, there are techniques and standard recipes and ratios to cooking. (And I would probably appreciate that music teacher's insistence on music theory more as an adult than I did at 8.) But good cooking is about far more than numbers and tradition. These past few years, I have realized, my cooking has improved because I have played.

Mostly, I've watched my husband dance in front of the counter, his head bent down in concentration, but all his muscles loose and enjoying. He has taught me to not worry about being perfect but to smell the food instead.

And he introduced me to The Flavor Bible.

I have written about The Flavor Bible before, so I won't repeat myself. Just know that this marvelous book lists most major ingredients available to home cooks, along with the other ingredients with which they pair. Pay attention to these flavor pairings and the techniques that work well with each ingredient, and you need never use a recipe again.

For example, if you have marjoram growing on your back deck right now, what should you do with it? Well, marjoram mixes particularly well with egg dishes, goat cheese, chicken, mushrooms, green salads, tomatoes, and thyme, among many others. What could you do with this information? You could make an omelet with goat cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and marjoram, along with a small salad of mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, and a thyme vinaigrette. If you know how to make an omelet, and a vinaigrette, you're done. Just gather the ingredients and start cooking.

fresh figs on the island

Or say you are at the farmers' market, as we were two Saturdays ago, and you find fresh figs. The farmer who grew this luscious fruit tells you this is the last week she'll have them available for the rest of the season. One of your best friends brought these figs to the canning party and made fig jam. You could do that again. Or, you could do something new, since you have a jar still in the fridge.

Danny cut figs into the summer quinoa salad we ate. We sliced them thin to top ice cream. We ate them out of hand, their soft pulpy flesh sweet and yielding. And then he wanted to do something else.

He pulled down The Flavor Bible and started looking at the list of ingredients that please figs no end. (The best friends are in bold.) Almonds, anise, blue cheese. Cinnamon, cream, honey, lemon zest. Mascarpone, olive oil, prosciutto, brown sugar, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, walnuts...

Danny lifted his head from the book and gave me that look. The "excited as a kid at Christmas clutching his GI Joe to his chest just after unwrapping it" look. He knew what to do.

"We're going to pickle today."

And so he pulled out the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. He ran outside to pick a bay leaf, some rosemary. He reached for the zester and de-nuded a lemon, quickly. I watched, laughing, learning more.

It has been hard to wait, the past week, for these pickled figs to be ready. But today, finally, Danny opened the jars.

"Oh mama," he said, his playful moan. "Try these."

Sweet and vinegary, clean and crisp. And oh, those seeds. They were sweeter in my teeth than I expected, punching out through the acidic taste. I was instantly addicted.

Now, we're just trying to think about what to eat with the figs. I'm thinking a good, crumbly blue cheese, with slices of prosciutto nudged alongside, and roasted hazelnuts. Maybe some honey ice cream and the figs, with a drizzle of balsamic. Or a tart made with mascarpone cheese and an olive oil crust, the pickled figs dotting the top.

I imagined all those because I was reading the fig list in The Flavor Bible.

This week, The Flavor Bible celebrated its one-year anniversary of being published, and its one-year anniversary of being in the list of top 100 bestsellers all year long. (Good god. Any writer salivates to think of that.) Think of it — a book like this making the bestseller list? We all must be cooking more at home now.

I love to think of it — people playing in the kitchen, at their ease with flavors and making pickled figs.

* * *

What has made you a better cook? (See this fascinating post on Metafilter to spark ideas. Danny and I talked about this all afternoon.)

And what do you like to eat with figs?


At 3:08 AM, Blogger sweetpea said...

To be honest, Celiac has made me a better cook! I have always enjoyed the benefit of an internal since of cooking and use recipes merely as a guide, usually veering off the suggested ingredients a bit. I don't measure much but I do pay attention to technique! Only getting the very best ingredients, especially those in season has made me a better cook. Reading blogs like this has surely contributed.
I have never tried pickled figs, they sound good. I like roasted fig and I like paring fig with pork!

At 4:31 AM, Blogger The Golden Papaya said...

Pickled figs! What a great idea. I can't wait until our tree starts producing, I will have to try these.
What's helped me the most to be a better cook is watching other people who know what they're doing.
I just moved to Brazil, and am excited to learn about cooking here.
Yesterday our nanny taught me how to make a corn and coconut pudding called mucunza. It was delicious.
(The recipe is here, if anyone is interested:

At 5:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love to eat them just out of hand. 2nd favourite way is to smash them on goat cheese covered toast, then drizzle with honey. 3rd fav way is to eat fig jam on toasted pound cake, or by the spoonful.
Will be getting a new book soon!!!!!Must ...try...the....pickles!!

At 5:53 AM, Anonymous beyond said...

i never 'follow' recipes. i read them to get inspired for my own cooking. i read cookbooks like novels. (except for baking. i follow recipes for baking. i learned the hard way.)
last week, i had a delectable fig balsamic custard (soft ice cream) from shake shack. sweet with just the right amount of tang, a perfect combination.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Laura said...

I became a better cook by tasting other people's creations, reading books, and practicing.

I love figs, I just made a fig and walnut ice cream, but I love figs with almonds and with a buttery crust. Figs and raspberries marry well in a jam with lemon zest and juice. But ultimately, there is nothing better than a perfectly ripe fig, unadulterated by anything else.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Babsness said...

Okay...just a bit confused because my doc said NO bleu cheese because it's cultured on do you get away with bleu cheese with a gluten intolerance?
Share please because I miss it!!
thanks :)

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's the recipe!?!?!

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Mystic Indigo said...

I ate Fig Mustard at a restaurant in New Orleans, it was the best eating experience of my life...paired with an array of cheeses and meats, it was awesome. I have tried to find Fig Mustard but have not had any luck...any recipe ideas for it or does anyone know where to buy it?

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love figs too much to ever do anything with them. They usually don't even make it home with me. Mmmh.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Just the Right Size said...

This may sound strange, but I like dried figs with a nice aged cheddar or gritty gouda. Maybe a little honey drizzled in for sexiness.

Gonna make this loverliness later this week:

Rosemary and Port Fig Jam

2 pounds green or purple figs, stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup white port
1 4-inch sprig of rosemary

In a large, nonreactive saucepan, toss the fig pieces with the sugar and let stand, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the sugar is mostly dissolved and the figs are juicy.

Add the lemon juice, rosemary sprig and water and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Simmer the fig jam over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is soft and the liquid runs off the side of a spoon in thick, heavy drops, about 20 minutes. Remove rosemary and discard.

Spoon the jam into three 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch of space at the top. Close the jars and let cool to room temperature. Store the jam in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Lila said...

I love figs dried,just by themselves. But when I was in Portugal I remember being served fresh figs layed open on a plate with octopus, it was this beautiful,fresh and hardly seasoned dish that felt like the entire country in a bite.

I'm in the same boat as the first poster-Celiac helped me become a better cook because I was forced to start making everything. I also read cookbooks like novels now,to get ideas, but hardly follow them. Cooking has become my new passion,it's so much fun.

ps. I just started a blog about my experiences with celiac(I'm newly diagnosed), including my experiments with food. Feel free to check it out!

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Ashley said...

I took 12 years of classical piano - all the while dreaming of being able to create my own music.
That is exactly how I cook. Learn the basics then improvise.
Beautiful post and again I MUST try those figs. With blue cheese - oh man oh man - you guys are brilliant!

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Cate said...

there's a fruit cart in front of my work building, and every day for the past couple of weeks, i've stopped on my way in and bought a basket of figs. i wash them off and plop down in front of my computer and eat them, slowly, one by one, until my mouth is puckered from the intense sweetness. then i put the basket on our communal table so other people can have some. it is the best part of my work day. it feels decadent, and real, and distracts from the discomforts of a job.

what makes me a better cook? every so often, following a recipe to the letter. if it's a good one, it teaches me more about proportion and process. most of the time i'm cooking by feel, but slowing down and following someone else's directions is a boon to my cooking.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Kelsey B. said...

What a great idea to pickle figs - I love the Flavor Bible.

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dried turkish figs (they have to be soft) with a raw macadamia nut tucked inside, for some reason gnawing on this combination is heavenly and tastes like caramel. i lived on that when traveling around england one christmas. . .

fresh figs with raw honey smushed in the top of the crossed slices. . . warmed for just a smidge under the broiler or in a toaster. . . with a dab of local raw goat cheese and drizzle of balsamic. . .mmmmmmm.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Ivy's kitchen said...

Grilled figs on a salad with Cypress Grove goat cheese, toasted pecans and balsamic vinaigrette.
Things that have made me a better cook: Cooking for people with dietary restrictions (vegan, celiac, dairy intolerant, etc.) Cooking with as many local ingredients as I can and only cooking meat that was raised in a manor that I feel comfortable with. Surrounding myself with friends and family who prepare their food with love and care. Traveling (you can't go to Italy without becoming a better cook). Eating, eating, eating. And cooking school didn't hurt, but I wouldn't put it at the top of the list.

At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Ivy's kitchen said...

Oh, one more thing. Pizza with black forest ham, figs, Brie, and a honey-balsamic drizzle. Tasty.

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous bluetooth dongle said...

I've never cooked salmon that way - it sounds like a great method. Gluten-Free Girl's Leek Coulis sounds incredible.

I love when I trick my husband. It's so much fun, especially when he thinks it's the best version I've ever made.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous La Niña said...

Booth's Celiac and YOU have made me a better cook. I've also "aged gracefully" in the kitchen with plenty of trial and error.

Figs are a favorite. The simplest, best way for me is slightly roasted with melted blue cheese (Point Reyes since it is GF) on top, and served in a pool of balsamic vinegar. I'm also making some kick-butt GF fig Newton's as of this summer... and...

I dream of fig ice cream- maybe with some chopped Marcona almonds on top.

Now if only that fig tree I planted on the island four years ago would only fruit...

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Juanita said...

The Prue Leith College of Food and Wine in Pretoria, South Africa made me a better cook...a trained chef in fact. It also made me agressive due to the time constraints inherent in food preparation, impatient due to the perfectionism demanded of the job and, eventually, loathesome of the thing that I had once loved to do the most. The celiac sealed the deal...get out unscathed before the profession took me down.

These days it is patience that has made me a much better cook. A willingness to see that there are many roads that lead to Rome, that all willing participants in the kitchen (mostly my precious husband) have their own style which can be best harnessed, and an inherent sense of adventure in trying out old favourites with new gluten-free ingredients.

With figs? Goat's chevin and slices of free-range ostrich biltong, eaten with oven-roasted red peppers.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger TAO said...

I love The Flavor Bible! So awesome.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Reika said...

First things first, regarding the bleu cheese: I know that Pt. Reyes bleu cheese is GF for sure; however, I've not had any trouble with any of the solid cheeses (and I'm new to this...6 weeks...and pretty damn sensitive). However, WATCH OUT for anything that's pre-crumbled as it's likely coated with a gluten-containing product in order to keep it from clumping. I had lots of trouble with those.

Now, back to figs: I would *never* have thought to pickle them! Next time I find some, I'll have to try that. Just a few days ago, I made fig compote/jam (with lemon and cinnamon), and I love it with GF toast and goat cheese. It was also *very* good on my roasted chicken last night.

What's made me a better cook? I think it's simply experience. I started cooking for my family when I was about 10 years old. Since then I've considered myself more of a baker. But retrospectively I can say that I lost interest in cooking when the celiac symptoms worsened. I felt that food was merely for fuel and it shouldn't be such a big deal. Since feeling better, I've been coming up with wonderful ideas for meals (not all of which I can eat yet, but I'm trying to be patient). Perhaps by the time the new cookbook comes out I'll be able to eat everything!

At 3:28 AM, Anonymous alison mc said...

great post - love the sound of the pickled figs......
sorry to hear about danny's finger....ouch.....

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous june2 said...

I have to say, pickled figs don't sound good to me, yet I am really intrigued and going to try them. I get how the seeds would remain sweet and be a nice contrast to the sour. Sounds worth giving a chance. Because I love figs... and if this is really good...well then, as my w.v. says: extrus! As in: BONUS.

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Dave said...

Never though of pickling figs, but will have to try it. I love them as an appetizer with goat cheese and prosciutto, or just dabbed with peanut butter as a quick snack.

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Helene said...

I love the idea of pickled figs! I could see them on buttered gf toast in the morning. That would be a breakfast I could hit instead of missing it like I do lately.
Season is almost over here in SC but I'll make sure to look it up next year!

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Amuse-bouche for Two said...

I'm intrigued by pickled figs. If only we had received this inspiration sooner...Next year we will be prepared when the fig tree starts to flourish! Thank you!

At 12:57 PM, Blogger MsJess said...

I had incredible grilled figs with brie this summer when I was visiting friends on their farm.

A few years ago I read an excellent book about two chefs trying to open a resteraunt (Liquor by Poppy Z Brite) and one of the recipes in the book was prosciutto-wrapped figs marinated in Calvados. I wish the book had the recipe. I am still determined to figure out how to make it myself.

At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best thing with fresh figs is a big dollop of mascarpone swirled with honey and a sprinkling of cinnamon. =)

Never tried them pickled though! =)

Looks like something I would love. I love pickled anything.

At 2:17 PM, Anonymous Jessica Waters said...

getting fearless has made me a better cook. Last night, my husband was bbq'ing and made one of his new specialties; bbq'ed curried rice balls. They were crispy and warm and nourishing and delicious, but they needed...something. (probably your pickled figs!). I immediately thought of peach chutney mixed with yogurt, but since I didn't have any, I went to the fridge and pulled out an unlikely, but perfect combination:

1. coconut yogurt (La Liberte, it's amazing!!)
2. pickle relish that I had made at a canning class last month
3. blueberry/jalepeno jam that I had lying around for about a year.

Just not being afraid to play with flavor and texture allowed the space for that outrageously perfect combo that really nailed the pairing with the rice balls.

hey, thanks for asking.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Kim said...

Figs are my absolute favorite of all foods! Sadly, I let another year go by without enjoying the pleasure of seeing a fig tree and picking some. Pickling figs is a must for me to try, even though store bought will have to do. Thanks for a great post!

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous slithella said...

Thanks so much for your blog. It is such and inspiration.
I like figs, period - from rinsed and popped dripping into my mouth to a fig & port wine reduction slathered on focaccia with carmelized vidalia onions.
Your question reminded me of my late daughter. On a weekend trip some friends and I pulled over at a little store & let the kids out to pick up snacks. They poured back into the car with soda, tortilla chips, cookies, cheetos, chewy candy... and Lee with her fresh figs and gorgonzola cheese.

At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Veronic J said...

If you're making food without gluten, chances are you're going to need a good wine to go with your dinner. Most wines are gluten free, but it's always best to check. I found this great tidbit out a wine reviewer (click on my name to go to that site). Check it out! I think it's a rare find!
Thanks and please continue this amazing blog. I am allergic to gluten and have a really hard time finding information and recipes!
Thank you!

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Liz said...

mmmm, sounds so good! Reminds me of a Mario Batali dish, figs agrodolce, that he serves at Otto. I'd guess he uses red wine vinegar there, but still the same idea. And tasty result!

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Sirena said...

I came to a fig epiphany so late at my neighborhood farmer's market in DUpont Circle. I love them with goat cheese, stuffed and broiled, or on top of a sweet tart made with puff pastry (or its GF equivalent for those with celiac) and a mix of goat cheese, sugar, labneh, and ginger. I macerate the figs in sugar, vanilla and ginger, and plop them on top before baking. But my favorite way is eating them, ripe and raw, on a beautiful day. Shauna, could you please post a recipe/how-to guide pickling them?

At 4:09 PM, Blogger kamran siddiqi said...

What an awesome idea to pickle figs. I have to admit- I have never eaten a pickled fig before, but I must say that it sounds awesome! Great photos, by the way! :D

At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Rachel said...

Well...after reading your blog for the last three years I'm finally compelled to drop a line. Figs are my hands down favorite. In fact I have a fig plant tattooed on my left shoulder! At the end of August this year I fractured my jaw in two places and and as a result have had my mouth wired shut for the last 6 weeks. Right in the middle of fig season! In a fig craving fit I threw together the best soup ever; a fig and blue cheese bisque. I enjoyed it more than any fig dish I've tasted. And as a side note, I will never feel sorry for myself again for needing to eat gluten free after not eating solid food for a month and a half! Gluten free pizza here I come! Thanks Shauna for inspiring hope and happiness for those in need.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Janel said...

I have wanted to get the Flavor Bible since you first recommended it. I finally ordered it, sight unseen, a couple weeks ago. I LOVE IT!

Thanks so much!

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Sassy Critic said...

I just wanted to say that your photos of figs are heavenly and some of the most inspired food photos I've seen in a long while.

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking over some menus online and saw one from a dinner sponsored by "The Modern Bar Room" in NYC on 3/7/2008. One of the third course choices was a "28 Day Dry-Aged Ribeye with a pickled fig-Rogue River blue cheese flan, baby bok choy, and a whole grain mustard jus".

I love figs and blue cheese, so I might have to try pickling some figs, and making a blue cheese flan. I'm thinking the pickled figs are probably served atop the flan.

I'd never heard of pickled figs before, so it was interesting to read about yours. Thanks for sharing.


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