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Chicken with figs
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Chicken with figs

"Don't play with your food!" Despite this parental advice that I often received in childhood, I seem to have grown up as an incorrigible culinary tinkerer.

No, I don't sit at the dinner table running oatmeal through my fingers or throwing beans at my companion. Well, not usually, anyway. But I seem to be almost incapable of making a published recipe without changing it in some way. If that's not "playing with my food," I don't know what is.

Today's chicken-with-figs recipe offers a good example. It started as a dish created by Chef Judy Rogers for her Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. It turned up in The New York Times' food section earlier this month, and fellow "foodie" Dale Williams reported it in glowing terms on our online Food Lovers' Discussion Group.

I love fresh figs and have been eating them by the dozens during the all-too-brief season when they're available here. Naturally I was intrigued by the recipe ... and naturally I couldn't keep my tinkering hands off it. The original version essentially used figs as a garnish; I added a riff that made them an integral part of the sauce. Cut the size of the recipe in half, added a little garlic, subbed chicken thighs for thigh-leg portions, replaced vinegar with lime juice and, oh yeah, turned it from an oven braise into a stovetop procedure.

Small stuff, right? Anyway, I hope this variation doesn't do any injustice to Zuni's original. Here's the finished product:

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

4 chicken thighs
1 medium white or yellow onion
6 to 8 fresh figs, green or black
1 or 2 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon butter
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon lime juice


1. Rinse the chicken thighs and pat them dry with paper towels. If you're watching calories, remove the skin and trim off excess fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Further variation: Feel free to use other chicken parts, or a mix. It might even be interesting to try it with cubes of pork. Or maybe duck ... )

2. Peel the onion and cut it vertically into quarters. Rinse the figs and cut off the stem end. Reserve four of the larger figs; cut the rest in half. Stir the honey and lime juice together and set aside.

3. Smash the garlic cloves to release their juices, and cook them with the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter is hot and the garlic starting to color, reduce heat to medium, put in the chicken pieces and brown them all over.

4. Pour off any excess fat from the skillet, then add the onions, halved figs, thyme and bay leaf, and toss with the chicken pieces for a minute or two. Add the white wine and cook for a minute or two, scraping up any browned bits from the skillet as you do so. Add the chicken broth and bring to the simmer, then cover the skillet tightly and reduce heat to low. Cook for about 40 minutes or until the chicken is very tender, turning the chicken pieces occasionally. In the unlikely event that most of the liquid evaporates, add a little more broth or water.

5. About five minutes before the dish is ready, put in the four reserved whole figs and turn them in the liquid until they warm through. Remove the chicken pieces, whole figs and a few of the larger chunks of onion, and turn heat to high just long enough to reduce the liquid a bit.

6. Remove the thyme stems and bay leaf, and - using a stick blender, food processor, blender or food mill - puree the cooking liquid with the remaining figs, onions and garlic. Put the resulting sauce back into the skillet over low heat and return the chicken pieces and reserved figs to it, turning them a few times. Arrange the chicken and figs on a serving plate, drizzle with the honey-lime juice mixture, and cover with the sauce.

WINE MATCH: Despite the fruit and small amount of honey, this is not a particularly sweet dish. The consensus in our online forum was that an off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc would likely be an excellent match. I also thought of Semillon. In fact, I ended up opening an Italian white, the La Cadalura 2000 Vallagarina Pinot Grigio. It was quite dry but on the rich side, with a distinct oaky nature and an unusual bitter-almond finish. Its cleansing acidity and richness made it a fine match.

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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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