Posted on December 6, 2013
Nelson Mandela’s passing yesterday has been on my mind. A few years ago, I spent several months interning at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, which was Mandela’s alma mater and the oldest historically black university in southern Africa. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and the news coverage has drudged up a lot of memories.
So in addition to a few photos from the week, here’s my favorite photo from the Eastern Cape and another of some comic books I picked up while I was there. These were distributed for free to young children all over South Africa to teach them about Nelson Mandela’s legacy since, in their short lives, apartheid was a thing of the past. I think I’ll spend a little time this weekend rereading them.
Posted on September 30, 2013
All week long I’ve had figs on my mind. I spent hours pouring over new recipes to try, and daydreaming ideas to improve old favorites. Figs come twice a year, but are at their best in the later summer and early fall. To me they are the perfect kind of sweet, not too sugary, not too tart, the way I imagined nectar tasted to bees when I was child. Like a with a good cheese, your first taste of a ripe fig should be held on the tongue for a moment, taking time to appreciate its subtle flavors before it melts away in your mouth.
I like to get to the market early on Saturdays. There is always something delicate that comes in small quantities and is gone if you sleep in, even just a little. For me its worth it to give up a little sleep to have a chance to grab green garlic, the first pears, or a handful of mushrooms. This week we were running a tiny bit late and when we arrived I headed straight to the back to look for figs. To my delight, there was one carton of half a dozen figs left. As soon as I’d set them in my basket, a well-dressed man came rushing up, asking if they were the last ones, and I was sorry to tell him I thought they were.
Years ago, I had an internship in the mountains in eastern South Africa, and next door to our lodge was a tiny little gift shop called Nina’s, that also sold the most amazing light lunches. They had a fig and Roquefort pizza that was a hit with my fellow interns. I’ve never forgotten those amazing flavors and decided to try to make something similar.
The result was better than I remembered. I used far less Roquefort than I would mozzarella on a typical pizza (about an tablespoon and a half vs 1/2 a cup). The Roquefort melts and spreads out thinly over the other ingredients, it’s sharp salty flavor mellowed by the sweetness of the figs and caramelized onions. The mister is not a fan of non-traditional pizza (he loves a good red sauce), but even he wolfed down a few slices and tried to describe how the flavors interacted.
Outside it was sunny with a cool breeze, and I took the entire pizza board outside with a glass of sparkling vinho verde; the perfect lunch for an early autumn day.
A few tips:
Consider a pizza stone. We keep one in the bottom of our oven at all times. Pizza stones help your oven retain heat that is usually lost when opening the oven door. This use of high, even heat combined with the kind of wet, aged dough we use, results in a crust that is crunchy on the outside and chewy within. I’ve mentioned that we use the dough from this book, but here is a similar recipe from Food Wishes.
Aged dough already has really amazing flavor, but I think that brushing a little olive oil over your dough before adding any ingredients really adds another level of amazing flavor. A tablespoon should be enough for the whole pizza.
Caramelizing onions takes a while. I usually start well before I’m ready to make the pizza, and they are easy to keep in the refrigerator if you want to make them ahead of time or even the day before. Just be sure to set the container out when you begin working on dinner; they’ll be easier to spread over the dough if they’ve had a chance to warm up. I caramelized two medium onions for this pizza.
Roquefort and other blue cheeses aren’t the easiest to crumble, but its easier if they are cold. Keep the cheese in the fridge until you are ready to use it.
You can quarter the figs if you’d like, but I find thin, even slices make for easier eating.
I think that a light sprinkling of salt over the assembled pizza really helps bring out the flavors. I take just a pinch of good sea salt and hold my fingers high above the pizza while sprinkling. This helps get a more even distribution so no one part is too salty. In the case of this pizza, I salted it just before adding the figs.