Trim and slice very, very thinly on a mandoline or with a sharp knife:
1 large fennel bulb
The days here have finally started to be bearable. The air is once again breathable. Instead of rushing from air conditioned space to air conditioned space, we are leaving the doors open all day, drinking in the almost autumnal air.
Even though I was bred, born, and raised in the South I have a marked intolerance for humidity. The first time I experienced dry heat was in Utah at Arches National Park. As a dry wind licked the sweat off the back of my neck, everything suddenly made sense: evaporative cooling really works! If you've spent much time in the South, you understand my amazement. In the humid nether regions of summer, you can sweat all day, but don't expect it to cool you off.
This recent change in the weather suits me. Nights are longer and cooler, and when I go out to feed the chickens at 7 a.m., I am more inclined to take my time than to rush back to the cool of the holler. I've sown some fall crops even though I can't really keep up with the weeds that are encroaching upon my garden. Yesterday, I took a weed eater to the perimeter of the beds, and I could hear the grass laughing at me.
In any case, the seasons are changing, and I welcome September, and all that it entails, with open arms and an open mouth. September brings delicious things to the table. Butternut squash has been showing up at market lately. Of course, it is a bit sad to see the tomatoes waning, but after all the canning and peeling and dicing and juicing we've done this summer, I must admit to feeling relief at their leave-taking.
However, the autumnal delights that most excite me are the fruits. Plums and pears and apples are starting to make their way into my kitchen, and I've made one batch of apple butter so far. The fruit I most want to gush about, however, is the fig.
My passion for this alluring fruit began when I was a child. I preferred, over all the other cookies to be had, the humble Fig Newton. At the time, I had no idea what a fig really was. I had never tasted one apart, of course, from its cookie incarnation. But I maintain that even then I knew a good thing when I tasted it, and years later, when I tasted my first ripe, fresh fig, still warm from the tree in our backyard, I was floored.
Since then, fig season has loomed large for me. My love for them borders on obsession, even more so because they're so dear. When you have a fig tree in your backyard, you're set. But trying to find figs--good figs, tree-ripened ones--at a supermarket is downright maddening. The ones you do find (at least on the East Coast--perhaps things are different out west) are picked when still underripe, and they cost enough so as to make them much less appealing even to a fig fanatic.
Even so, I like to have a go at them while they're in season, and while they aren't still "warm from the tree," they're more than passable. I eat most of them out of hand (don't you love that phrase?), but figs make for the most elegant of desserts, and the beauty of them is that you really don't have to do much to them.
This dessert is one of those little gems in the Joy of Cooking that I've passed over hundreds of times, but that will prove to be a staple in my kitchen from now on. The JOY is like that--subtle and understated, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Good because I'm constantly surprised by the depth and breadth of the book. Bad because most people probably don't look long or hard enough to find the meat of the book.
I have, as is my wont, changed a few things in this recipe. I found 1/2 cup Marsala to be overpowering, to the point where the flavor of the figs was lost. I also added a vanilla bean, which adds another dimension of flavor and richness to the syrup, preventing it from being overly and overtly sweet. However, the recipe has good bones, and I present it to you in the high hopes that you will find this dish as rewarding as I did, and that it will find a place in your repertory for years to come.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Combine in a small saucepan:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds reserved
Stem and cut in half:
8 large figs (we used Black Mission figs, but use whatever you have)
Bring to a gentle simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and add:
1/4 cup sweet or dry Marsala
Split each fig half down the middle, being careful not to cut all the way through the stem end (see the photos if this is confusing). Place them in a small, shallow baking dish, and spoon the Marsala syrup over them. Bake until the figs are tender, about 20 minutes.
1/3 cup good quality ricotta
1/3 cup heavy cream
Reserved vanilla bean seeds
1 teaspoon sugar
When the figs have finished poaching, serve them on a plate with some of the syrup and topped with a spoonful of the ricotta mixture. Garnish with:
(Shaved bittersweet chocolate)