How many things have I taken for granted in my life? Things that were just there, without shouting their presence, but whose absence I would have immediately noticed. Things that now are not here, and I miss, or simply, I see from a different perspective.
Take parents, for example. I lived with them for 19 years, and even after I left, I was seeing them regularly, every two weeks. It took a good dose of miles and one-hour time difference to make me feel distant, and achy for more of their presence in my life. Take, as a second example, walking to class, or to work. Seeing it in retrospective, it was such a luxury! If I knew what was awaiting me in terms of commute, I would have savoured every step from my little apartment in Bra to the office, or from my room in Padova to the various class locations.
Take free food. I grew up spoilt with a bounty of home-grown food, from vegetables of all sorts depending on the season, to truly free-range eggs and poultry, to fruits in the summer and fall months. I am thinking of those gifted fruits now, more than anything else. Starting with strawberries in late May, then cherries in June, and plums, grapes and tiny green, soft, jammy figs later on in the summer. The bounty decreasing a bit afterwords, giving us some pomegranates and nespole in the fall, with persimmons closing the dances in December. All free, all there for us to pick.
Figs. Those figs are so stuck in my memory. There were two fig trees in grandma’s garden, one by the barn hosting the farming tools, and one in the middle of the hens’ patch. I would climb those trees with a latter, a little plastic bowl in one hand. I knew what to do since an early age, not quite sure if someone taught me or if it was somehow ingrained in my genes. I would test the fruits carefully, pressing them to feel the ripeness, and gently detach only the soft ones. I would descend the latter only when the bowl was full, and most of the time, there were many more left on the branches.
Another fig tree was located on my usual bike path. It was planted in someones yard, but it was so big that many of its branches leaned onto ‘no one’s land’. I knew it was there, and I knew there would be figs to pick, so I was always biking there prepared, with a little plastic bag and a bowl inside my basket. The figs were of a different variety from grandma’s. Hers were small, with a thin green skin that was almost impossible to remove, and an almost melting heart of pulp and tiny seeds. Those others, instead, were purple-green, bigger in size, and with a thicker outer skin.
I used to eat so many in the evening, after dinner, like they were the sweetest treat – the last with the skin still on, tired of the laborious peeling and eager to pop just one more into my mouth. If there were any left, I would make a cake, something uncomplicated. On occasions, I even made jam, although it has rarely been my first choice when it comes to fruit.
Here in London, figs are a luxury. Local figs are a dream. The few trees I eyed in the neighborhood host fruits that never arrive to the stage of maturity, hit by the cold, premature fall when still young and hard. The little green ones travel very badly, I heard, and arrive all smashed up in a messy blob of sticky flesh. We have better chances with the purple ones, as they are a bit sturdier. However, imported figs can be really bad, and the OK ones cost a fortune. A fortune. £20/kg on average if you want some good ones from France, or a bit less for those from the Middle East. Seen from someone who used to have free figs at her mercy, this sort of prices seem just out of this world. Yet, I suffer in (almost) silence, and, unable to resist, last week I bought a spare amount. I am addicted to that sweetness, that pulpy flesh hiding a sexy explosion of crunchy, tiny seeds. I miss the feeling – a lot.
The figs I bought felt so precious I wanted to make something unique with them. Not the same old goat cheese salad, which I don’t love particularly; not the same old focaccia with ham – although very tempting. Not one more cake, for much that I love fig cake. It had to be a primo piatto, something either with pasta or rice, something unusual but with a clear Italian soul. Something savoury that would enhance the natural sweetness of the fruit without tasting weird. Trusting my flavour memory, I made combinations of ingredients and techniques in my mind, until one rang the right bell. I am always looking for contrasts and harmony, so the winner was a matching of fig sweetness with pecorino cheese sharpness. A good dose of black pepper and some hazelnuts for a whim. That was it.
I can say without further ado that it was a winner, approved by everybody – aka, the two of us. I didn’t plan to share the recipe on this pages (that is why the photos, for once, come from my phone), but then I thought it would be a shame not to.
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small red onion, chopped very very finely
- 1 cup quality carnaroli rice
- 2/3 cup full-bodied red wine
- plenty of boiling hot water, for cooking
- 6 black figs, quartered
- 1 tbsp quality salted butter, cold
- 1/3 cup grated pecorino romano
- 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano
- 2 tbsp whole hazelnuts, roughly chopped, toasted
- freshly ground black pepper (optional), to taste
Place a large pot with the oil over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the chopped onion and start to stir using a wooden spoon. Cook the onion until translucent, stirring it frequently to avoid burning or sticking to the bottom. Once the onion is soft, add the rice and stir to coat the kernels with onion and fat. Toast the rice for 2-3 minutes, making sure you stir it often to prevent it from getting too brown.
Pour the wine over the rice and increase the heat a little. Let the liquid evaporate while stirring well so that all the rice kernels absorb some of the wine. At this point, start cooking the rice by adding a ladle of the boiling water. During the whole cooking process, you’ll have to keep stirring your rice to avoid sticking and burning. Avoid falling into the temptation of adding more than one ladle at a time. Less liquid will give you more control over the cooking process and save you from having too much liquid toward the end of the cooking time. Once the water is almost all absorbed, add one more ladle, stir, let the rice absorb the water, add more and so on.
Half way trough, at about 8 minutes from when you added the wine, add the fig slices, keeping a few aside for serving. Stir well to combine, add more water and keep going. Taste your rice: if it is close to being done, add even less water at a time. When your rice is almost done, turn the heat off. Add the cold butter and stir energetically to distribute the fat evenly. Now, add the cheese, and keep stirring. At this point, taste and see if it needs more salt. Season accordingly with salt and pepper. Finally, check the texture: if your risotto had got too thick, add the last little bit of hot water to bring it back to a creamy, loose state – that’s the texture you should aim at.
Serve immediately, with the toasted hazelnuts and the extra fig slices.
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