Last Wednesday I was waiting for the F train at Jay St-MetroTech, trying to make a 9 am meeting near the Flat Iron. I forgot to bring reading material for the train, so wandered over to the news and candy kiosk in the middle of the platform. For a couple years I’d buy the Times every Wednesday just for the dining section. The crossword was a bonus (Wednesdays: not too hard, not too easy), the arts section a boon. It was definitely worth the four quarters I’d plunk down on the tall counter of the Marcy Ave. newsstand before dashing up the stairs to catch the J train.
Then the price of the paper creeped to $1.50, before becoming $2 and $2.25. And this past year, the price went up to $2.50. Now it’s a rare Wednesday when I get ink on my hands in pursuit of the latest restaurant review. But I was glad I splurged this week, if only for Melissa Clark’s treatise on figs, “Italy to Brooklyn, Fig by Fig.” Did you know there are fig trees growing all over Brooklyn, in large part a holdover because of the borough’s influx of Italians in the first half of the twentieth century?
On Friday, when hastily throwing a bag together for a last-minute trip to Vermont, I tossed the paper into my duffle, wanting to try Clark’s recipes for financiers and lamb-and-fig skewers. If figs can grow in NYC, I reasoned, surely someone in Vermont is growing them. So yesterday morning I woke up early, stopped off at Vergennes Laundry for a chocolate croissant and coffee (my Saturday morning ritual when I’m here), then drove down to Middlebury for the farmer’s market. Got the requisite pan au levain from Good Companion Bakery, tomme from Twig farm, bacon from Kate (North Branch Farm), eggs from Doolittle, all the while keeping my eyes open for figs. I saw none. Apples and plums of all varieties. Watermelon even. I considered using local plums in place of figs in the recipes, but decided to try the co-op. They had them! Black mission figs. Unfortunately they were from California, not Vermont, but I picked them up anyway. I had my heart set on those recipes.
My last errand in town yesterday was to pick up lamb for the skewers from a sheep farm, outside of town, down a dirt road. Kate tipped me off to the farm, and its honor system — you walk into a little room filled with glass-fronted freezers, write down what you’re taking, leave cash in a little plastic cup, and you’re done. I found the farm, which is completely unmarked, no signage, and pulled into the driveway. There was an old farm house on the property, and a few sheds. I wondered if I was in the right place. I heard voices and laughter coming from one of the sheds, and made my way over. The door opened as two people were on their way out, and I asked if I was in the right place to buy lamb. Tom, the farmer, said I was and invited me in. He explained how the system worked. He didn’t have boneless leg of lamb so he walked me through his other cuts. In the meantime we got to chatting, and I mentioned I was up from Brooklyn, but that my parents lived nearby.
“Brooklyn?!” he exclaimed, in what I took to be mock horror. “That’s terrible,” and he sort of chuckled nervously. I chuckled, thinking I’ve heard this before. Everybody wants to live in Brooklyn these days — it’s so cool, so young, charming architecture, farmer’s markets on every corner, beautiful people riding bicycles in skirts, or with bow-tied collars, on their way to work. Then I got the sense that maybe Tom wasn’t kidding. So I asked if he was. “No! I’m not! That’s a terrible place to live! So crowded, so many people.” Then he shook his head like he was sorry for me. Sorry for my choice of residence, sorry I didn’t get to see the sun set over the Champlain Valley every day. Sorry I didn’t get to smell dirt and farmland and manure. I remember my friend Kate visiting me from Vermont some years ago when I lived in Park Slope, and she said that while she loved visiting New York, she couldn’t live there because she has to see the mountains and sunset everyday.
It’s true, we have bow ties, bicycles, and brownstones. BAM, beaches, bagels, and some of the best new food being made in the country. But it’s not Vermont. It’s so far from Vermont, despite how hard Brooklynites like me try to bridge that gap, by pickling and fermenting and gardening. But hey, at least my local farmer’s market back home has figs. For now, that’ll have to do.
adapted from Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Financiers are tiny French cakes made with browned butter and often almond flour. They’re traditionally made in shallow, rectangular molds, resembling small bars of gold, but can also be made by filling muffin tins part way. I didn’t have that many figs to spare so I decided to try some local plums in addition to the figs, for adorning the tops. They worked liked aces! Both the fig and plum financiers were equally good. The original recipe also calls for 1/2 c of hazelnut flour. I scoured town for hazelnut or almond flour but found none. So I decided to cheat by adding some almond paste and using a combination of pastry flour and all-purpose flour. I cut the sugar from the original 1 1/4 cup to 1 cup, and next time I make these I’d cut it even more, to 3/4 c or even 1/2 c.
1 stick butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 c sugar
1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 c all purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tbsp almond paste
4 large egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 ripe figs (and/or Italian plums)
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small saucepan, melt butter, cooking until it smells toasty and just starts to brown. Pour into a heatproof container and let cool.
2. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flours, and salt. Beat in egg whites until the flour mixture is damp. Add the almond paste, combine. Add the butter and whisk vigorously until very smooth, about two minutes. Beat in vanilla.
3. Trim the stems off of figs, and slice each one crosswise, into thirds.
4. Butter and flour muffin tins. (Makes 18, so unless you have lots of muffin tins you may need to re-butter tins for a second rotation.) Fill each muffin cup scant halfway and top each with a slice of fig. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
Lamb and Fig Skewers
adapted from Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Yields 4 servings
The original recipe calls for boneless leg of lamb, but I think this may be hard to come by. And if you do find it, it will likely run you a pretty penny. So I think you could use lamb stew meat or a bone-in cut (like the steaks I used) and cut the meat into chunks.
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 large sprigs rosemary, minced
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp honey
1 1/4 tsp coarse salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp tamari
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
12 ripe figs
1 1/2 pounds lamb meat (boneless leg of lamb, chops, steak, or stew meat), cut into 1-inch chunks
1. Begin by making the marinade. In a large bowl, toss together garlic, rosemary, lime juice, honey, salt, pepper, and tamari. Stir well to dissolve the salt, then stir in the oil. Set aside a few tbsp of the marinade. Add the lamb to the bowl with the remaining marinade and toss well. Marinate if you have time (makes a difference!), in the refrigerator, for a few hours, or at room temp for 30 minutes.
2. Thread the figs on skewers, making sure to leave a little space in between each one. Brush with the marinade you set aside.
3. Get your fire started. [If you're not grilling, you can put the figs and lambs on a baking sheet instead of skewers and bake.] Thread the lamb on the skewers, leaving space in between each piece. Grill for three to five minutes, turning once.
4. Serve with fresh mint and lime wedges.