Cooking skills and deftness in the kitchen mean precious little if you are missing either of the two following prerequisities: an attention span of more than .02 seconds and a memory that goes back at least 45 days. The former would have prevented me from scorching a spiced wine sauce into unrecogizable blackness last night and the latter would have reminded me that after all that trouble, I just like my figs plain, please.
In the LA Times two Wednesdays ago, Amy Scattergood wrote up a few appealing recipes using dried fruit, including Simca Beck's bread pudding, which sounds utterly bewitching even at this early hour. As the sweet end to a meal of cabbage casserole (Swear to God. Stay tuned, it will be blogged about), though, I thought a light and refreshing bowl of poached fruits would be better suited.
Amy drew her inspiration from Lindsay Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts - a book that makes me lust for an ice-cream machine each and every time I leaf through it - using Lindsay's base recipe for the pears, then adding her own poached figs to the mix. The pears are cooked in a lovely little syrup that's scented with lemon peel and vanilla bean (though the amount of sugar in the recipe took my breath away - I put in a third of what was called for and found it sufficient). I could eat those pears for breakfast every day.
The figs were an entirely different animal, at least for my addled self. I realized once I arrived at home that I had none of the spices required. I had ground cloves and allspice, but nothing whole and I couldn't get at the peppercorns in my pepper grinder. So instead of just tapping in a dusting of each, I decided to improvise (a bad idea) and flavored the poaching wine with a small piece of cinnamon and star anise, along with the strip of peel. When the figs were soft, I took them out, raised the heat to reduce the syrup, sat down to eat dinner and promptly forgot about the sauce, until it started smoking and bubbling into a terrifyingly sticky morass about, oh, 3 minutes later.
Frazzled, I decided to serve each pear with a fig perched jauntily on top and a bit of the pear syrup drizzled about it. It looked pretty enough (something quite Zen-like about the whole thing), but I took one bite of my wine-poached fig and it all came flooding back: I just don't like boozy figs. So like the four year-old that I am, I made a face and handed the rest over to my mother, sitting conveniently next to me at the table and making pleasant noises for my benefit.
This is not to say the poached figs aren't good! After all, my mother liked them (and I won't make a comment now about the fact that she lost her sense of taste in an accident several years ago. Except, oops, I just did.) Prepared with the proper spices and minded over the stove as directed, they're probably luscious. But only for those of you who like your figs poached. Maybe I'll remember that next time.
Poached Pears with Poached Spiced Figs
1 1/2 cups Zinfandel
1/2 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
1 (1- by 3-inch) strip orange peel
6 black peppercorns
1 whole clove
2 allspice berries
1/2 pound dried Calimyrna figs
1. Bring all the ingredients but the figs to a simmer in a nonreactive saucepan. Add the figs and cook them at a very slight simmer until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 30-40 minutes, depending on the figs.
2. Remove the figs to a container with a slotted spoon, raise the heat, bring the syrup to a boil, and reduce by one-third. Pour it over the figs and chill.
6 firm, ripe pears, Bosc or Anjou
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 (1- by 2-inch) strips lemon peel
1 vanilla bean, split in half
1. Peel the pears, leaving the stems on. Core them with an apple corer, then slice a bit off the bottom so they cook upright. Alternatively you can halve them, remove the stems and core them.
2. Bring 4 1/2 cups water, sugar, lemon, and vanilla to a simmer in a large saucepan, then add the pears. Cook, covered, until the pears are tender but not mushy - 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the pears.
3. When the pears are done, remove them from the poaching liquid and boil the remaining liquid until reduced by half. Pour the syrup over the pears and chill.
4. To serve, divide the poached pears among 6 bowls and spoon the poached figs over each.