Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Here, readers, we have a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for. V. and I have been together for almost five years, and we've been living together for almost four. When I first moved in, there was a fig leaf tree in the backyard. Since I am a person who normally eschews all manner of fig leaves, I found it, while somewhat pretty, mainly a nuisance in that it bore no fruit and needed to be navigated around when cutting the grass. Then, about two years ago, it bore a handful of figs. And last year, we got, oh, I don't know, maybe as much as a pint of ripe (and delicious) figs from the tree.

And then there was the Great Fig Flood of 2008. I suppose it just took a while for the fig tree to find its way in the world, but it has certainly done that. On one occasion this summer, I had to call a friend, who'd told me in the past how much he loves fresh figs, to come over and please, please, please relieve me of some of these accursed (but delicious) figs. He came and picked about a gallon, but the next day, I was able to harvest almost as many more. A neighbor saw me picking them and asked what they were, and when I explained that they were figs, he said, "Oh, is that an Italian thing?" V., you see, is Italian. I replied that I believed that figs were somewhat universal, but then he replied that he was Norwegian, and I recalled that figs really do best in zones 7 through 10, so I allowed that figs were likely not a Scandinavian phenomenon. In any case, I prevailed upon him to take two handfuls of the figs, and, thus emboldened, I went to the next door neighbors, where I unloaded a quart or so. I also told them that they could feel free to help themselves to more figs from the tree, and they liked the figs so much that they eventually did so.

I eventually bought a food dehydrator and dried a substantial number of figs. They shrink quite drastically under drying, but they retain a good flavor, and I expect to stew some of them in a bit of red wine and honey to make a delicious yogurt topping. Before I got the dehydrator, though, I looked around for other methods, and I came upon recipes for candied figs.

I'm going to admit right up front that I don't, apparently, care much for candied figs. They are, you see, very sweet. Hence the name. I had some trouble eating them, and I thought that perhaps I had done something wrong, but when I offered the jar of candied figs (which, by the way, are gorgeous) to V. upon his return from a recent trip to Bogota, he tasted them and exclaimed that they were very good indeed, going so far as to hope that they would last long enough to be included in a Christmas basket for his mother. He also allowed that they are, indeed, very sweet, but apparently that's to be expected.

This is a lengthy and somewhat inexact recipe and procedure. It is not, however, difficult, though it requires some patience. It is similar, in some respects to making any sort of fruits confits, though it's not nearly so difficult as that. But it does require at least a week to complete because it takes a fair amount of time to replace most of the water with sugar. The recipe I adapted to make my recipe notes that you can use the same process on either plum tomatoes or apricots. I'm sure that glaceed apricots prepared this way would be splendid, but if you try it with plum tomatoes, please don't say that you got the idea from me. I had plum tomatoes from the garden, and I just made some sauce. Also, it's probably best if your figs aren't extremely ripe for this recipe, but some of mine were, and they survived pretty well.

Candied Figs

About sixty medium-ripe to ripe figs
2 T. baking soda
More sugar

Rinse the figs well. Then add the baking soda to about a gallon of water and soak the figs in the mixture for about ten minutes. Drain thoroughly and let dry.

In a heavy saucepan, mix together sugar and water in a ratio of about three cups of sugar to 2.5 cups water. You should have enough to cover the figs. Cover and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil, then let cool. Add the figs and return the syrup to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, for twenty minutes. Cover and let sit overnight.

Once or twice a day, return the figs and syrup to a boil and simmer for twenty minutes. Cover and let sit at room temperature after each cooking. Repeat this process until almost all of the syrup has been absorbed. This will likely take a week or so.

Place a rack over a half-sheet pan. Remove the figs from the saucepan and place them on the rack. Let drain.

Preheat your oven to its lowest setting (170 degrees on my oven). Place the figs in the oven and heat until they are nearly dry. You can do this an hour at a time and stop in between if need be.

When the figs are as dry as you think they're going to get, add some granulated sugar to a large bowl. Add the figs a few at a time, roll them in the sugar, and remove them to a plate. Store the figs in a jar. If they begin to throw off a lot of syrup/moisture, dry them again in a low oven.

I got a fairly significant feeling of accomplishment from making the candied figs, and even when I thought that they weren't any good, I was happy to consider keeping them in a jar on the table to sit around and look pretty. Naturally, I'm happier that someone thinks they make good eating, though.

I reckon I can give some of them away at Christmas, but if anyone has any other uses for candied figs, I'd be happy to hear about them. Or for dried figs, for that matter. Everyone I've talked to about fig trees has lead me to believe that I'm likely to have at least as many figs every year from here on in.

I still haven't figured out what to do with the fig leaves, though.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Red Winey Pears

I'm laboring under the weight of abundance, readers, and for once, I'm not talking about my waistline. The tomato plants, which we put in very late this year, are finally sending forth lots of fruit, though not more than I can use relatively easily, thanks to a) an unusual amount of restraint when we planted, and b) losing some of the plants to hungry deer earlier in the season. If the tomatoes are manageable, however, the figs are anything but. There's been a fig bush in the back yard for, well, I don't really know how long. V. planted it some years back, so it was here before me, but it never really produced figs until a couple of years ago when it produced a small crop. Then last year, a slightly larger crop, and this year it's the flood. V. picked all the ripe and near-ripe fruit before the remnants of Hanna came through. Then he left this morning for a two-week consulting trip to Bogota, and when I got home this afternoon, I collected about two quarts of ripe and overripe figs. And, truly, they're yummy, but there's only so many figs that I can eat. I started to candy some today, and I'll let you know how that comes out. So many of them were so ripe that I'm likely to end up with sweetened fig paste, but we'll see.

None of which has anything to do with the pears. As I've mentioned before, my folks have a summer place up in Somerset County in Southwestern Pennsylvania. They're getting to the point where they want to stay in Florida year 'round, so they've asked me whether I want to buy the house in PA. And I do, but I wanted V. to see it before I made a final decision. I figured that if he hated it, I wouldn't go up there much. Fortunately, it was a beautiful late August weekend when we visited, so it looks like it'll be a go. Which also has nothing to do with the pears, except that while we were up there, I got a call from my first cousin once removed, who has a house next door to my parents' house, asking me whether I'd like some of the pears she'd picked from her tree.

There is, of course, only one response to "Would you like some of my pears?" So I wound up with a small bag of lovely green pears of an unknown (to me, anyway; I suppose she knows) variety. I ate some of them out of hand, and I sliced others to eat with my Greek-style yogurt (which, by the way, I have perfected), but that still left me with more pears than I was going to be able to use up easily, so I decided to think of some way of preserving them.

I'll confess up front that the preparation I used was intended more to create a potable liquid than to keep the pears, but I reckon it'll do both. If things work out according to plan, I'll end up with something sweet and strong that can be drunk in very small amounts, plus some pears that will be lovely over ice cream. I had originally thought of simply slicing the pears, adding a little sugar, and pouring Vodka over them, but I thought I might want some other flavors. That, in turn, led me to think of the fabulous recipe for Poires au vin rouge from the equally fabulous Cuisine of the Sun by Mireille Johnston. That recipe for poached pears never fails to draw raves. I decided that I didn't really want to poach the pears all the way, but I didn't want them fully raw either, and I did want a similar flavor profile. What I came up with was the idea to pour the hot syrup over the sliced pears, let them come to room temperature, and then store them with more red wine and some stronger spirits.

I figured that I must have an appropriate jar somewhere and that it would likely have been taken to the basement by V. on one of the many occasions when he feels that I've brought too much junk into the house. So I went down to the basement and, sure enough, there was a nice clamp-top glass jar from Ikea. I don't know exactly how big it is. It seems to be more than 1.5 liters and less than 2, but, well, it was just chance that made everything fit in it as well as it did.

If you're more particular than I, you may want to try a different method of preserving your pairs. I didn't cook mine in a boiling water bath or anything because I wanted them to retain as much of their essential pearness as possible. I generally figure that alcohol kills most things. I'll let you know how they turn out when I try them in a few weeks. I suppose that if I were more responsible, I'd wait until then to post the recipe, but then we'd have another situation like we had with that kimchi I made a few weeks ago, which didn't taste all that bad but gave me a mild case of intestinal distress and made me think that perhaps I should be exploring sauerkraut instead. It's just that kimchi seemed like such a good idea because it's so low in calories and high in flavor. When you're on a diet, that's the ideal food, right? If I come up with enough really successful new ways of preserving vegetables, I should be able to starve to death without ever actually being hungry!

Anyway, the pears are not so much diet food, but if I don't eat them for a few months, they will be, right?

Red Winey Pears

Eight small pears
One lemon
1 cup sugar
1 cup + 1.5 cups red wine
2 whole star anise
2 whole green cardamom pods
1 cup vodka

Remove the zest from the lemon in strips. Juice the lemon.

Wash and dry the pears. Cut them in quarters and remove the cores. Toss them with the lemon juice in a heatproof bowl.

In a saucepan, combine the sugar with a cup of the red wine. Bruise and add the anise and cardamom. Add half of the lemon zest. Cover and bring to a boil. Pour the syrup over the pears, cover, and let come to room temperature.

Wash your jar thoroughly. Add the vodka and the other half of the lemon zest to it. Add the pears and syrup. Top with the remaining red wine. Close the jar and let sit for an extended period of time.

It's probably best if you store this in a dark place. On the other hand, it's so pretty that it may be hard to put away. If no one offers you eight small pears, you could use six larger ones. Or any number of pears of any size, provided that you make adjustments.