Before migrating to urban sprawl, I spent several years living in downtown Seattle, three blocks from the Pike Place Market. Canvas tote in hand, I would shop the French way, daily gathering ingredients for dinner. When inspiration proved elusive, I relied on the advice of Frank Genzale Jr., my produce man and owner of Frank’s Quality Produce.
Visits to the market are less frequent than they used to be; more of a weekly affair than a daily one. “What’s for dinner?” Frank will invariably ask as I hand over my list. He systematically gathers items, keeping a mental tally as he goes. With his consummate knowledge of the weight of every rutabaga, blackberry and fava bean, the man rarely relies on the scale yet consistently offers competitive prices.
A born salesman, Frank never misses the opportunity to push seasonal, local produce. “I’ve got baby cauliflower, today,” he’ll say.
“But I haven’t a clue what I would do with them,” I balk.
“Just toss ‘em in a hot pan with a little garlic, sea salt and olive oil… delicious.”
With no intention of veering off my list, I politely smile and counter, “Maybe tomorrow?”
It was Frank who introduced me to fresh figs. At the time, figs conjured up unpleasant memories of brown gooey paste encased in a soft cake-like shell, masquerading as a cookie. Fig bars are the unclassified specimens of the cookie world; not quite dessert yet not exactly good for you. They were the only thing resembling a cookie that regularly made it into my lunchbox. Fresh figs sounded exotic in comparison. Intrigued but skeptical, I waivered as Frank touted their delicate sweetness and versatility. Still doubtful, I employed my usual stall tactics but Frank went in for the kill. “Last of the season,” he said, warning they would be gone tomorrow. I caved.
On the way home, I cast a sideways glance at my impulse purchase. Nestled in their green carton, the fragile figs’ juicy flesh pressed against dark skin, like tiny purple water balloons. Frank suggested pairing them with good quality prosciutto. He claimed the salty cured meat would bring out their sweetness. In the same breath, he added that his luscious, honey-sweet Tuscan melons were equally stellar with aforementioned ham.
The three block walk felt much farther while toting a four-pound melon in my canvas bag. Sidled up next to the melon was a flat white package containing paper thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, purchased from DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine.
At home, I gently lifted the figs from their box, cradling each one as if it were a robin’s precious egg. Cleopatra’s last meal came to mind I as cut into that first fig, marveling at its rosy pink flesh, speckled with white seeds in Rorschach-like patterns. Ribbons of prosciutto added a dimension of texture, the salty meat coaxing out the subtly sweet fragrance of the fruit.
Over the years, I have come to revere fresh figs as a much anticipated seasonal treat. The following recipe, if you can call it that, is simple to prepare yet visually stunning.
fresh figs with chevre, mint and prosciutto
yields 12 pieces
1 pint (about 12) fresh mission figs (skin should be bulging but not broken and slightly softer than a ripe peach)
1 – 4 oz. plain chevre at room temperature (i.e. Laura Chenel)
4 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma
1 small bunch fresh mint
Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel
Gently rinse figs and pat dry. Set aside. Open goat cheese package and have a small spoon at the ready. Slice or tear prosciutto into 12 one inch wide ribbons. Wash and pat dry mint. Pluck 12 mint leaves for garnish.
With a paring knife, remove the figs’ tough tips. Take a thin slice off the bottom, giving the figs a flat surface as stability for serving. Cut figs crosswise, about halfway down, creating four points and a cavity in the center for the cheese.
Using a teaspoon, fill center of each fig with chevre, 1-3 teaspoons depending on size of fig. Sprinkle a pinch of Maldon or other coarse salt over chevre. Place prosciutto in the center or each fig. Garnish with mint leaf.
For best flavor, serve at room temperature or slightly cooler, not straight from the refrigerator.
Recipe adapted from ‘The French Market’ by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde