Monday, July 11, 2011

Fig and Balsamic Onion Compote

When my mom came home with a flat of fresh figs last week, I was overjoyed. Fresh figs? In Georgia? A whole flat of them, too? Figs have, for some time, entranced me. They’re not readily available down South, and I read all about them in cookbooks, on blogs, and in magazines. Still, no amount of ogling over their beauty and dreaming of what I could do with them could have ever prepared me for, you know, what to actually do with them when faced with the proposition of thirty or so quickly ripening figs.
We enjoyed the first few plain, biting into them like apples and savoring the sweet succulence. They were delicious atop homemade pizza with some creamy cheese to balance the sweetness. Still, I remained indecisive about how to use the rest of them. I knew for sure I wanted to utilize them in a dessert, but it’s been so hot (and humid!) here, that the idea of turning on the oven for an extended period of time hasn't been exactly enticing.

At the moment, I’m still pondering a sweet application that can really let these fresh figs shine, but for now I’m perfectly happy enjoying this sweet and savory fig and onion compote. Perfect atop toasted bread, it marries the caramel sweetness of slowly melted onions with the floral sweetness of figs. I cooked a portion of the figs with the onions and a splash of balsamic vinegar for acidity until everything had melded and cooked down a good bit. Then, for some contrast—both in texture and in flavor—I added some more chopped fresh figs, waited just a moment until they were warmed through, and took everything off the heat to preserve the freshness of the figs. I love the duality of this topping, which would be equally delicious on a cheese plate or as a complement to roasted chicken. The balsamic vinegar provides more tang than sweetness and balances the onions and figs wonderfully. The cooked down figs are sweeter than the raw ones, which have a more intense flavor.
I chose to leave the compote a little bit chunkier so that it would be easier to spread on bread, but to make it into more of a sauce, you could add the deglazing liquid (which also makes a divine bread dipper!). Either way, I was quite pleased with this on-the-fly concoction. And in the meantime, I’ll be sure to report on where those final fleeting figs end up.

Fig and Balsamic Onion Compote

I used a Vidalia onion because they're locally available and in season right now, but because the onion gets caramelized anyway, a plain white or Spanish onion will do fine, too. It's completely optional to deglaze the pan once you've made the compote, but I strongly urge you to do so. You don't want to waste any of the deliciousness that will be leftover in the pan. In addition to topping some nice crusty bread with this, this compote would be marvelous mixed with Greek yogurt or stirred into rice or quinoa.

Yield: about 1 cup compote (and 1/4 cup deglazed sauce)

For the compote:
1 medium onion, medium-diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 fresh figs, chopped into ½-inch pieces, divided

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 sprig fresh thyme (about 2 teaspoons)

For deglazing sauce (optional):
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Sugar, to taste

Heat a medium nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions. After about a minute, the onions will start to brown ever so slightly and release a little moisture. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Stir with a wooden spoon and allow to cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Once a thin layer of browned bits (called fond) has formed on the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water. Scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits. The onions will subsequently take on a caramel color.

Continue this process, cooking for a few minutes, allowing the fond to form, and then deglazing the pan with water, for about 10 more minutes, or until the onions have substantially softened and are a deep brown color.

After the onions have softened and caramelized for about 15 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low, add half of the figs, and cook for about 2 minutes, or until more fond has formed on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze the pan with the balsamic vinegar and stir to incorporate the vinegar. Add the thyme.

Cook the onions and figs together for 10 to 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally and smashing the figs with the back of the wooden spoon. Once the figs have taken on a jam-like consistency, add the rest of the figs. Stir to incorporate and allow the rest of the figs to warm through, which should take about a minute. Transfer to a separate container.

Serve the compote warm or at room temperature. The compote will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week (if it lasts that long).

If you opt to make the deglazing sauce (and I suggest you do because you don’t want to waste anything leftover in that pan), return the pan to medium heat. Add about ¼ cup water and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release the browned bits. Add the balsamic vinegar and mustard and stir until smooth. Allow the  mixture to reduce and simmer away until it thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Season with sugar to taste (about 1 teaspoon should do), adding additional water (to smooth out the flavors) or balsamic vinegar (to amp up the acidity) as necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature, separately or added back to the compote to make a delicious sauce. The deglazed sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week.


  1. You're a cute lil fig yourself! Sounds delicious! xo

  2. sounds divine-maybe i can try to see if i can tolerate them better in a different "state".

  3. this was a wonderful surprise treat (I'm so glad I get to enjoy the "fruits" of your summer cooking!)... love it in that stengl bowl, too!

  4. ahh- i just came back from visiting my mom in texas; i had gifted her a fig tree ages ago, and it is finally bearing lots of lovely fruit - she cannot get enough!

    what a great way to use figs with balsamic! she inhales them so fast, but next year, ill be sure to experiment more with them.

  5. ohoh i would love this. i had my first ever fresh fig a few weeks ago, can you believe that?! it was awesome. i need more in my life.

  6. This looks so good. I love figs, especially with caramelized onions. But I've never cooked with fresh figs; we don't really get them up here in the north.

  7. Great recipe! Do you think this can be frozen?