This is the last weekend in July, which can only mean one thing: the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
What? You’re not going? You don’t want to drive into the hot, garlic-scented valley on a one-lane highway rife with minivans with bumper stickers that read: “It’s Chic to Reek”?
Can’t say that I blame you, but honestly: everyone should go at least once. It’s a kick. The atmosphere is contagiously goofy, and the air smells so strongly of garlic that even if you don’t eat any (impossible during the festival weekend), you’ll smell like it for at least three days afterwards. I spoke to Andrea Froncillo yesterday, chef at The Stinking Rose; he’s on his way down to Gilroy today for three days of garlic madness. He’ll be judging the Garlic Cook-Off, and then taking the stage himself, cooking from The Stinking Rose Restaurant Cookbook.
He’ll be in his element; the man is a born performer. He loves the energy of the crowd. I’ve often thought that his restaurants should have counter seating, where he could cook for an audience; it's truly what inspires him.
Which brings me to my fig story.
A few years ago, Andrea invited me to a dinner party hosted by his business partner in a gorgeous home in Russian Hill. About two hours before dinner was supposed to start, Andrea drove to Whole Foods and made up his menu on the spot in the produce section. He didn’t give it a thought before the moment he walked into the store; that there would be ten or twelve hungry mouths to fill in a short time didn’t daunt him in the slightest. He bought whatever was fresh and in season and piqued his fancy. Arms loaded with bags, he proceeded to the house, where he chopped and stirred, moving leisurely until guests began to arrive. Then he really started cooking.
While people picked at an assortment of cheeses, Andrea grabbed two cartons of fat, ripe figs. He sliced them in half and laid them face down into a bubbly pool of butter in a saucepan. Just as they began to soften, he lifted them out of the pan and arranged them on a platter, accented with freshly shaved Parmigiano. He poured a splash of wonderful old balsamic vinegar into the saucepan with another chunk of butter and reduced it into a wine-colored syrup, which he drizzled over the figs.
He handed the platter across the counter. As amazing as it seems to me now, I had never eaten cooked figs before that evening. I had eaten them straight out of hand, or occasionally dried, but never cooked. My first cooked fig was simple, but revelatory. Sweet, tangy, salty, buttery: everything good.
When figs are in season, as they are now, I can’t get enough of them. You can use any kind of figs for this recipe – most recently, I used gorgeous grass-green figs from Sonoma with blush-colored middles. Because of their color, I decided to use white balsamic; the result was a honey-colored reduction that perfectly accented the delicate flavor of the figs. If you do use purple figs, I’d use the best traditional balsamic you can find. I’ve also taken the liberty of adding an extra ingredient– crushed toasted almonds, for a tiny bit of crunch and one more layer of indulgence.
These figs are fabulous with Greek yogurt, or alongside roasted chicken or lamb, or simply eaten by themselves.
Butter Braised Figs with Parmigiano-Reggiano & Toasted Almonds
1 pint ripe figs
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted almonds, crushed
Rinse the figs and gently pat dry. With a paring knife, slice off the pointed tops from the figs and make a cross-shaped cut about 3/4 inch deep into each fig. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and sauté the figs for 2 to 3 minutes, or until their soft bottoms begin to spread ever-so slightly.
The figs should be heated through, but not strictly cooked. Remove the figs to a plate; the cuts made in the top will now have spread to reveal the insides; slip a little of the grated cheese into each.
Add the balsamic vinegar to the remaining butter in the saucepan, and reduce into a thick, viscous syrup. Drizzle the syrup over the figs. Sprinkle crushed almonds on top. Devour immediately.