To everything there is a season, and a reason. Sephardic custom – all Spanish custom – is to finish everyday meals with a very simple but specific category of desserts: things soft, light, sweet and simple. It’s the time for puddings, custards, flans and simple fruit dishes, cold in summer, warm in winter. Cakes and more elaborate desserts – and lots of them! – are for festive occasions. This was certainly the norm in our house, and I suppose it served us well by establishing sound eating habits with room for the occasional exercise in outrageous excess (When we were growing up, large and lavish birthday or holiday meals were immediately followed by a second meal, equally large and lavish, called dessert).
My mother’s choices in all things edible were generally dominated by her Sephardic sensibility coupled with an obsession inherited from her father – who was way ahead of his time – for ‘healthful’ food; all natural, all the time. Even so, Mom used to ease the rules a bit mid-week, letting the chemical giants of the day preside over our wiggly, squiggly, squishy desserts. The lovely little delicacies of her childhood – flan, sulatch, composto – took a back seat to ersatz ice cream (in the era of Holland Hall, not Haagen Dazs), Royal Brand pudding and red Jell-O. We kids were happy as clams.
I remember an evening when Mom must have been suddenly siezed with an attack of guilt. After we’d finished dinner and gone off to play, she got busy in the kitchen and a little while later called us back for dessert. Dessert! We came charging downstairs and raced to the table, all pumped up for a chemical fix; instead, there waiting for us at the table were little bowls of natural, healthful, homemade… stewed prunes. A few looks of disappointment, then sighs of resignation, and then we ate the fruit. All of it.
Composto – fruit compote, fruit cooked in syrup, stewed fruit – is the simplest of cooked desserts, a way of making something appealing out of all that less-than-stellar winter fruit you’ve got in the house to remind you it’s still winter. It’s also a way of getting your apple a day at a time of year when just the mere thought of cold fruit can send a shiver up your spine. And it gets such a bad rap.
Stewed fruit has connotations both funny and dreary – ‘regularity’ for one, something I appreciate more and more with the passage of time. It brings to mind elderly ladies with white gloves, big brooches and way too much face powder on, eating lunch at a table for one at Schrafft’s. It’s the Automat. Or the school cafeteria, that great stronghold of culinary crimes and misdemeanors. It’s what they slap on your tray after meatloaf, gluey mashed potatoes and boiled green beans. Not a great lineup. But try get past all that. Call it poached, if you like (sounds more dignified) and forget that it’s good for you. Because Mom was right.
Stewed fruit – composto – is a warm and wonderful comfort food, easy to make, easy to love. And it’s got a place in traditional Sephardic gastronomy: fall; winter; right after the salad course. Made at home and eaten warm or at room temperature (never cold!), the textures are satisfying and the flavors delicious. Before agricultural mass-production, when fruit tasted as lush and full-flavored as it should, compostos needed no more than sugar and a dash of cinnamon to heighten their own natural spice and turn them into something special. That’s the traditional recipe. Today, fruit isn’t always exactly bursting with flavor. To say the least. If I’ve got a particularly bland batch then I compensate by adding a few more flavors to the cooking liquid, but only to enhance, never to overpower. When fruit has plenty of its own concentrated flavor, one additional note will still suffice. Apples, quince, pears, dried figs, all take perfectly to cinnamon – this is hardly news. Dried peaches with powdered ginger is a favorite of mine, and adding a splash of rosewater to prunes is a nice variation. If I’m in the mood for something with a little more body, I spoon composto over Greek yogurt with some toasted walnuts. Heaven. Suddenly I’m seeing the glint of sunlight dancing on the Med, and winter seems vulnerable to an attack of spring.
6 responses to “Poached Figs / Komposto de Figos”
Wow! I’m drooling over this one, Janet.
The Persians make fruit salad, always adding some rosewater. How about a big bowl of different cut-up melons of different colors and varieties, adding a bit of sugar if they are all not totally ripe and fragrant, and mixing the bit of sugar with some rosewater and stirring the whole thing. Chilled on a hot summer day (or night), this is really satisfying!
Schelly, I had to laugh when you sent me this comment. There it was, the dead of winter, half the U.S. was buried under mountians of snow and I, thinking of them, wanted to offer some solace in the form of warmth. And it was cold enough where I am (I figured you must have been writing from warmer climes) that I couldn’t even bring myself to think about chilled anything, let alone comment! But yes, of course, what you describe is delicious. A little sugar extracts the juice from underripe fruit, and rosewater is refreshing on chilled melon (so is lime juice, which I prefer to lemon). Growing up we had a big spearmint patch in the backyard and we always used fresh mint leaves either in summer fruit salad or to garnish the melon we ate as our first course at dinner. And, now that I’ve been able to turn the heat off for the first time since November, I’m thinking once again about summer fruit! — JA
My family just got home from doing Vegas and the Grand Canyon for thanksgiving! While in Vegas I ate at a very good buffet (not a place where all the stuff tastes the same!) and which had a full array of mideastern foods to try as well!
They had these amazing figs poached in citrus (and i would guess with infused vanilla after seeing your recipe)!
i popped them in my mouth and felt transported back in time!!
As we drove through the snow filled, icy roads of the Grand Canyon, the memory of these figs lingered and I returned home filled with nostalgia for the foods of my Jewish auntie.
I found your blog this morn and it is wonderful! Thank you so very much for your work here and for sharing this recipe which I can’t wait to try!!
Hey, bookbabe – How nice you were able to find a good buffet in Las Vegas. And here I thought the recipe was my own! If the poached figs you ate had any flower essence added, it was most likely either rose water or orange flower water, both middle-eastern ingredients. I add vanilla to give balance, but it’s not traditional in that part of the world. Try the recipe (if you haven’t already) – I’ll be interested to know if it’s like the one you tasted… — JA
Hi Janet, I just made the recipe (minus the orange zest) and ate three figs, very good (and Passover-friendly, too!) indeed!
On a side note, I am very happy to have found your blog – I am Turkish/French Jew living in the US who grew up on all the good Sephardic foods. My sister has a food blog in judeo-spanish where she shares our family recipes. I hope you will find it interesting: http://savoresdesiempre.blogspot.com/
Happy matsah week!
Estelle – I’m so glad you like the fig recipe. Thank you. Do try it with the orange peel, though; it really adds another dimension. Re your sister’s blog, what a timely coincidence – I used to follow it and only a week or two ago rediscovered it while investigating assure.. I will add a link, with pleasure. Thanks for writing! — JA