Welcome to our first post on MY ITALIAN DISH!
I hope you will enjoy our conversations about Italian cuisine in many forms and come back to visit me often, both here and on my website at www.lindasitaliantable.com It is said Mangia bene, vivi felice! (Eat well, live happy!) I certainly would agree with that, as some of my happiest memories revolve around a great meal shared with the people I love.
Today we’ll explore the virtues of of BAKED FIGS WITH GOAT CHEESE AND PANCETTA – one of my favorites!
When my beautiful and gifted graphics designer, Kadria, was working on my logo, she sent me an email concerning my request to incorporate figs in the design and titled it “I give a fig about your figs!” I thought this would be a most appropriate adaptation for the title of today’s chat.
Italians love the fig and truth is, I, too, have a passion for figs – dried and fresh. I especially love fresh figs, and unfortunately, they have a short season, appearing here in Atlanta sometime in July and extending into October. Our very talented photographer friend, Doc, from San Francisco visited last August during one of my fig frenzies. Doc usually watches his portions and rarely has seconds even when trying to humor me. I had baked some exceptionally sweet Mission figs and served them with before-dinner cocktails. His eyes lit up when they came out of the oven, and this careful eater was observed happily enjoying “thirds”. There is something about figs!
I remember later in September of last year, I hunted for some of these delights at Whole Foods and chased down the Produce Manager to complain about my unsuccessful search. He said he thought it might be a little late for them, but he would check into it. After much begging and gnashing of teeth, he assured me that he would find figs for me by the following Tuesday. Sure enough, they arrived – the very last ones I would see until this year. This season, we have been most fortunate to have found a wonderful friend here in Atlanta with a very prolific and beautiful fig tree, and he has generously shared his bounty of figs with us this year. Troppo Bella!
Figs are truly Mediterranean, though not in origin. It is thought that they originated in Western Asia and were taken to the Mediterranean region. They date as far back as ancient Roman times with Cato – for those who remember their Latin instruction – verifying at least six varieties known at the time. The remains of ancient figs dating back as far as 5000 BC have been found among archaeological sites existing in present times. Of course, there was even a mention of figs existing in the Garden of Eden, if one remembers the strategically placed fig leaves in the old oil paintings of Adam and Eve. Perhaps if Eve had chosen a fig instead of an apple? Today, figs are grown all over Italy even among olive groves and vineyards generally for fresh local consumption and not for export. At our markets, we usually find the more commonly exported Mission (dark), Calimyrna (greenish), and Turkey (green with red markings) Figs. Fresh figs should be used quickly at their sweetest, keeping in mind that they perish in short order.
I love the sweet season of figs, as it offers a myriad of opportunities to use and introduce the luscious and juicy fresh fig to almost any dish. I’m sure I could throw a fig into anything and be happy with the result.
With that in mind, let’s talk about some interesting ways I have used fresh figs. I find that a fig’s versatility lends itself to side dishes, stuffings – especially with game, appetizers, desserts and yes, even breakfast. They are a marvelous accompaniment to almost any roasted meat on their own or in a mixture of roasted vegetables.
Today, we’ll discuss fresh figs featured as the main event in an appetizer – Baked Figs with Goat Cheese and Pancetta. This is one of the less expected applications of this little wonder as one might not think of using figs with cocktails. On the contrary, their sweetness coupled with a savory blend of cheese and/or meat makes the fresh fig a perfect choice to be repeated throughout the season with cocktails or wine especially al fresco which is my personal favorite form of summertime entertaining. (Not to be confused with the fact that “al fresco” is an Italian slang term for “being in jail”) To add to the joy of serving these appetizer figs and the delight in hearing the oohs and ahs they will create, they are easy to make!
Baked Fresh Figs with Goat Cheese and Pancetta
1/4 lb chopped pancetta
For Fresh Figs – Figure about 3 halves per person (they are usually found in 8 oz. containers)
Drizzle of your favorite honey (My favorite is a local Wildflower variety from Hidden Springs in Williamson Ga.)
3-4 oz goat cheese
1/3 c. Toasted Walnuts – chopped small but coarsely – not fine
1/3 c. Fig Balsamic Vinegar (or any Balsamic would be fine) cooked down a little to thicken
Put a few drops of olive oil in pan and crisp up the pancetta. Remove pancetta pieces from pan and reserve.
Place sliced halves of figs in oiled baking dish face up. Drizzle them with honey to your taste. Top with bits of goat cheese – I like to use the full 4 oz. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts and follow with crispy pancetta. Drizzle the figs with the thickened Fig Balsamic. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes at 350. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves about 6.
I like to serve these with little forks (or salad forks) and small interesting appetizer dishes. Each one pops easily into the mouth so there is no need for knives.
NOW FOR THE TWIST-UP!
There are other ways to serve these same baked figs! Because of the fleeting season, I serve them often and differently.
I especially like to pair them with salads of mixed baby greens with Marcona Almonds and a simple Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar Dressing. The Fig Balsamic is lovely as well. They look so beautiful laying on the side or arranged on top of individual salad plates.
Another way to enjoy this recipe is as a side dish to roasted or grilled meats. They offer just the perfect combination of sweet and savory to go with lamb, pork, duck, sausage, game – you name it!
I have even served these very same little jewels for an amazingly different dessert. Italians are known for serving fruit and nuts for dessert and don’t generally prefer very sweet gooey desserts as we know them in this country. This same preparation of fresh figs is a perfect ending to a rich meal. I like to serve 3 of them on a small plate – with a shaving of dark chocolate and perhaps a biscotti. Of course, a lovely Vin Santo or Moscato alongside and,YES, an Espresso would make my night complete!
PARLA COME MANGI!
Food Photos by Tommy Hanks Photography