A grey week. Gloomy skies, endless rain. Nick, aka the Wild Dog, lying listless on his cushion.
At moments like this, my palate gets sleepy. Everything tastes a bit dull, even fuzzy.
So when I ran across a recipe for fig chutney in Lior Lev Sercarz’s little book on figs, I sat up and paid attention. So many shimmering flavors: fresh and dried figs, sweet red pepper and chopped shallots, all simmered together in Banyuls wine and a touch of balsamic vinegar. Let’s not forget the brightly aromatic coriander seeds.
Of course, one of the great things about chutney is that it is forgiving.
That is, you can change an ingredient, or even add a few new ones, without losing track of the chef’s original intent. As it happened, the bottle of Banyuls wine that I thought we had was actually vinegar. What to do on a rainy Sunday morning when all the other ingredients had been prepped?
Happily, Banyuls is a dessert wine with more than a little similarity to port. In an essay on Into Wine, writer Julie Reid notes that it is one of the few fortified wines from the Languedoc Roussillion. Made from Grenache grapes that “struggle in the dry poor soil,” it is allowed to ferment until it is about six percent alcohol. At that point, pure grape spirit is added, raising the alcohol level to roughly 15 percent.
She writes: “While rich and full-bodied, it is less sweet and syrupy than a typical dessert wine. It possesses a lovely garnet color and a good balanced acidity that makes it come off as more delicate than vintage port.”
Luckily we had a small bottle of non-vintage Six Grapes port produced by W & J Graham in the cupboard. A blend of six young, unfiltered wines, it was fruity and sweet, but not heavy or cloying, with nicely balanced acidity. Even at 19.5 percent alcohol, I thought, it was a decent substitute for the missing Banyuls.
Thus emboldened, I reasoned that since the sweet red Bell pepper had to be peeled, the skin might as well be blackened over a gas flame, lending a touch of that luscious, smoky roasted pepper flavor to the chutney.
And I couldn’t say no to the idea of adding chopped fresh ginger to the pot, since a little sweet heat would add even more zing to the chutney. Then I wondered if a bit more balsamic vinegar would jazz up the blend—and in fact, what about including some chopped onions for texture, briefly marinated in said vinegar?
Those coriander seeds? How about a teaspoon instead of “a few?”
Sometimes I just can’t stop myself.
But the result was delicious. It never lost its connection to the original chutney, but was slightly more acidic, crunchier with the lightly cooked onions and spicier with the addition of the fiery fresh ginger. The extra coriander seeds added tiny pops of bright, aromatic flavor that illuminated the sultry taste of roasted peppers and sweet figs.
One thing you should not change or eliminate is the stock, beef or veal. (OK, if all you’ve got is chicken stock, go right ahead.) Stock adds a faintly savory, almost umami-like flavor to the chutney—a touch of mystery that shouldn’t be missed.
This is a recipe that you can either follow exactly or use as the basis for experimentation. Another time I might try green peppercorns for heat, or even a serrano pepper from the garden. A twirl of orange zest would take the chutney in a citrusy direction, as might a little lemon peel.
However you make it, the chutney will certainly brighten summer staples like grilled pork or chicken, perhaps even grilled swordfish. Lior’s tip? Try it with a slice of seared foie gras. Now that’s shaking things up!
Fig Chutney with Coriander Seed, Fresh Ginger & Red Bell Pepper
This is adapted from a recipe for Fig & Red Bell Pepper Chutney in Lior Lev Sercarz’s delightful pamphlet, Figs: Ten Ways to Prepare Them. Most of my suggestions or changes to the original recipe are shown in parentheses.
3 shallots, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, peeled and finely diced (If you want to roast the pepper first, go here for directions.)
5 dried figs, diced
5 fresh figs, diced (Be sure the figs are ripe and sweet.)
4 dried apricots, diced
a few coriander seeds (I used 1 teaspoon.)
(Optional: 1-1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced)
15 grams honey
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (I used 1-1/2 tablespoons)
200 ml Banyuls wine (I used non-vintage port, scant ¾ cup)
50 ml veal or beef stock (3 tbsp 1 tsp)
(Optional: ½ cup yellow onion, medium dice, in 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar)
Olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan, heat 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil and gently cook the shallots over low heat for about 3 minutes, until they have softened and have begun to turn translucent. Do not let them brown.
Add the diced pepper and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.
Add the figs, diced apricots, coriander seeds, and chopped ginger, if using. Fold in the honey and raise the heat to medium low. Caramelize the mixture, stirring and turning it occasionally until it has taken on a darker hue. This may take 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the heat of the fire.
Remove the chutney mixture from the pan and deglaze with the balsamic vinegar. Return the fig mixture to the pan and add the wine and stock, along with the onions in balsamic vinegar, if using. Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Scrape the chutney into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
The chutney is most delicious if you serve it the next day, after the flavors have had time to meld. It can be served hot or cold, although personally, I like it best at room temperature.