roasted figs with black pepper and wild thyme honey

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When I was a child, my mother and I lived in an old red-brick house in suburban Perth, girt by a Bottlebrush hedge and river sand. It was a beautiful old place; slightly cold in winter and hot in summer, but essentially full of character. I loved every part of it in a very sentimental way; the splotchy brown carpet, the crackling warmth of an original oil-fueled fireplace, the speckled, hand-painted kitchen cupboards in bright shades of gold and blue.

My mother poured a lot of love into that old place. It was all we could afford when I was a fledgling human of three short years and little courage. I knew nothing of how little we had, spending most of my irresponsible youth in the garden catching bugs and evasive butterflies. My mother, on the other hand, worked the second shift,  nursing part time whilst caring for me, ironing for extra pennies and maintaining the property’s crumbling old fixtures and superfluous garden on weekends.

Ah, maintenance. It’s the bugbear of many established home owners, and my mother was no different. Well, actually, I need to correct that statement: she was different, in the sense that she attempted to be both mother and father to me and our rambling property.  Around work and mothering commitments, she attacked everything from crumbling lino in the bathroom to invasive rubber tree roots and holes in the kitchen cupboards. Over the years, she amassed a sizeable tool collection, a ‘utility drawer’ and much on-the-job learning, much to the bemusement of men in our social circle.

figsAs for me? Well, I ‘helped’. This mostly included handing my mother tools at various intervals, though I do recollect one occasion when I got up early to ‘surprise’ her by stripping the kitchen cupboards in readiness for a fresh paint job. I think I was about six years old, pyjama-clad and keen. I sat with a paint scraper in the early hours of the morning for about sixty minutes before mum rose wearily from her bed. Whilst rubbing her eyes, she discovered that I’d scraped off all of the primer she’d applied the night before. With a weary smile, she gave her little helper a hug before starting to make me my favourite breakfast: a runny boiled egg with toast soldiers. Now, that’s one hundred percent love: lavishing generosity and time upon someone, noticing their pure intent, when you’d probably rather kick their ass. She’s my hero; she always has been, and she always will be. She’s the strongest person that I’ve ever met.

So; by now you may be wondering why I’m traveling down memory lane as a prelude to a recipe for roasted figs. It’s primarily due to a strong personal association between fresh figs, my childhood and our old house amongst the trees. Living in that house exposed me to the fact that fresh chayotes grew on vine-covered fences, that passionfruit wasn’t always sweet and that mulberries stained fingers and toes. We didn’t grow all of this produce ourselves; rather, there were quite a few Vietnamese immigrants in our suburb who shared a penchant for turning their front yards into market gardens. Mum and I used to walk around our suburb regularly, hand in hand, and occasionally I’d pick a mulberry from a roadside tree. It was during one of these walks that I first discovered the deciduous wonderment of a live, blushing fig tree.

herbslikeI still remember that first bite; sweet, unusually thread-like, with crunchy seeds and slightly savoury skin. I didn’t like it much to begin with, presumably due to the fact that it was worlds apart from my favourite fruit, the Kensington Pride mango. Nevertheless, it left a unique mark on my mind that remained until I rediscovered this fruit in dried form some years later. Being a typical, sugar-obsessed child, I liked this version much more than the fresh, mild fig I’d eaten by the roadside. But now, with both time and experience under my belt, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the delicacy of fresh, perfectly ripe figs. They’re versatile enough to add to both sweet and savoury dishes, whilst their unsurpassed beauty adds a touch of sophistication to any serving platter.

ingredsIn most countries, figs are at their peak in summer and autumn. During these months, I’ll quite happily eat them straight from their skins with sticky fingers and a smile of sweet content. However, towards the end of the season, figs often become more woody and flavourless. On these occasions, I’ll often slice them onto an oven tray with a bit of honey, cracked black pepper and some woody herbs to accentuate their subtle flavour.

In under half an hour, your figs will be transformed into sticky, sweet-but-savoury goodness with a caramelised crust that goes beautifully with mild chèvre. I’ve included a rough recipe below, but feel free to experiment with quantities and whatever toppings you like (well, within reason. Figs don’t compliment tomato sauce). Just remember that you want to accentuate the flavour of the figs, not mask it, and you can’t go wrong. So, I’d encourage you to give this recipe a go: eat well, then smile with seeds in your teeth. Life’s too short to do otherwise.

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Roasted Figs with Wild Thyme Honey

Serves 4-6 as a cheese course

Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Wash and stem your figs before slicing them into 1cm thick slices (vertically) and arranging them in a single layer on a lined baking tray. Drizzle the honey and herbs on top before grinding fresh black pepper into everything.

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Roast your figs for about 15 minutes, turning them half way if the top starts to brown. When they are ready, the figs should be light golden, softened and fragrant with caramel and herbaceous notes.

At this stage, remove your figs from the oven and cool them on their lined trays. When the figs reach room temperature, place them onto a serving platter with some mild soft cheese, crispbreads and some salty prosciutto.

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Notes:

  • Figs are not only delicious; they’re incredibly good for you. They are the richest plant source of calcium known to man, whilst also containing significant amounts of fibre, copper, manganese, magnesium, vitamin K and potassium. Nutritional analysis has also revealed trace elements of flavonoids, polyphenols and antioxidants.
  • If you like dried figs but often find supermarket versions to be too sweet, try these little figs from Whisk & Pin. They’re chewy, subtly sweet and delicious in everything from your morning cereal to a spiced lamb tagine. Try poaching them in sugar syrup with cinnamon and vanilla before serving them with bircher muesli or yoghurt for breakfast. Yum.
  • Natural partners to figs are prosciutto, bacon (it works!), goats cheese (or any other soft white cheese, such as mascarpone, ricotta and chèvre), walnuts and hazelnuts. For a delicious treat, try stuffing them with thyme-honey-infused mascarpone or ricotta cheese, a little orange zest and fresh thyme.

honeyinfoFor some more information on J. Friend and Co’s organic, carbon zero, single-vintage artisan honey, check out their beautiful website here. This company is a partnership between New Zealanders’ Jeremy Friend and Sharyn Woodnorth, both of whom believe in honesty, integrity and 100% sustainable farming. Their products are available for purchase on line, where you can also meet the bee keepers (apiarists) who lovingly harvest every batch… like Ernest from Central Otago (he seems cool). Oh, and by the way, this promotion has been unsolicited and unpaid, based entirely on my positive view of this particular company. My view is entirely my own.

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herbed chickpea salad with feta and lemon

peajarThere’s a lot to love about chickpeas. Otherwise known as ‘garbanzo’ or ‘ceci’ beans, these naturally creamy, adaptable legumes have been a staple food in India, the Middle East and some parts of the Mediterranean for centuries. Fortunately for us in other countries, processes of migration and settlement have slowly seen chickpeas filtrate into local cuisines worldwide. For instance, in my home country of Australia, you can find chickpeas in more traditional dishes such as hummus and Chana Masala whilst also sampling them in Westernized baked goods such as chocolate chip cookie pie and chickpea burgers or patties. Interesting.

Okay, here’s an admission: I haven’t personally crossed the line into ‘sweet’ chickpea territory as yet. Perhaps this is unusual for a foodie, but the idea of eating legumes in a cake or brownies sounds incredibly… well, undesirable. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that using chickpea batter is a fabulous substitute for the copious amounts of butter and other saturated fats that we often put into baked goods, whilst also being a wonderful gluten-free option for those intolerant to flour. I have utmost respect for the amazing cooks who can formulate these recipes, but for me? Well… my brain just says no.

parsleyI’m digressing again. Let’s get back to savoury dishes, the chosen medium for consumption of chickpeas in my household. Over the years, thousands of these little canned or dried legumes have made it into personal versions of spicy curries, fried snacks, dips, burgers, breads and wraps. All versions have been delicious, my personal favourites being crisp-fried chickpeas with lemon oil, harissa and minted yoghurt, chilli-spiked hummus and the simple chickpea salad that you’ll find below.

This recipe has become slightly famous in my immediate circle; mostly due to its simplicity, freshness and adaptability. I first introduced it at a casual barbecue a couple of years ago (as a side to my friend Mark’s famous, Jamie-Oliver-inspired, rosemary-infused lamb and chicken kebabs) and since then, at least half of the group have been making their own versions on a regular basis. In fact, my friend Caryse (an amazing cook in her own right who also happens to own a photography business) has labelled this salad ‘…the best recipe I ever stole’. I hope that you might experience the same success in your own kitchen.

ingmont3Herbed Chickpea Salad with Feta and Lemon

  • 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained, or equivalent dried chickpeas, cooked (see ‘notes’)
  • 2  small Lebanese cucumbers
  • 250g punnet cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 small red capsicum (red pepper)
  • 1 avocado
  • 1/2 small Spanish (red) onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch mint, washed and finely chopped
  • 1 bunch coriander, washed and finely chopped,
  • 1 bunch parsley, washed and finely chopped
  • 100g (0r to taste) goat’s feta
  • 1/3 cup pepitas, lightly toasted
  • juice of 1 lemon plus 1 tbsp finely grated rind
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • freshly cracked black pepper

Chop your tomatoes, avocado, cucumbers and red capsicum into a rough dice. Place them into a medium-sized bowl with the Spanish onion, herbs and drained chickpeas.

ingredmontCrumble over the goat’s feta, then add in some olive oil, black pepper, the lemon rind and the fresh lemon juice. Toss to coat, then taste. Adjust flavourings and add salt as required.

lempepNotes:

  • If you would like to use dried chickpeas in this recipe, use the conversion ratio of 1:3 (1 cup dried chickpeas equals around 3 cups cooked chickpeas). There’s no need for exact measurements in a chickpea salad (I’ve given you quantities as a starting point, but play around with things as you like), but to rehydrate the equivalent of a 440g can of chickpeas, start with around 150g dried chickpeas and follow the cooking method below.
  • To prepare dried chickpeas: place your dried chickpeas into a large bowl and cover completely with cold water. Add in about a teaspoon of baking soda (to speed the soaking process by penetrating and softening the skins) then cover. Allow to soak overnight, or for around 12 hours. After soaking, transfer your chickpeas to a large cooking pot or saucepan. Cover with twice the amount of water, then cover and simmer slowly for 2-3 hours. Test them for softness: if ready, a chickpea should be plump and tender; you should be able to easily ‘squash’ it between two fingers. When ready, train your chickpeas and allow them to cool.
  • Cooked chickpeas can be kept in an airtight container or covered bowl in the refrigerator for up to three days. They can also be frozen for up to one month.

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  • Chickpeas are a rich source of zinc, folate and protein whilst also providing about 49-53mg phosphorus per 100g. Recent studies have also shown that they can assist in lowering of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
  • For more information on the nutritional value and difference between canned and dried chickpeas, I’d encourage you to read the thorough rundown posted on George Mateljan’s World’s Healthiest Foods site. It includes a full nutritional background in chart form.

P.S This recipe was made with liberated cucumbers from my local fresh market (I went to buy Lebanese, but… well, either they’re liberated or they conservatively vote for the Liberal Party. Just thought you should know.

cucumbers

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