This week’s Bittman exploration became, I must admit, something of an experiment thanks to what can only be termed “first world problems.” Here’s what he suggests:
“31. Combine cooked wild rice with caramelized onions (nearly burnt onions are almost as good, and faster), chopped figs and fresh rosemary. Bake in an oiled dish or use as stuffing.”
I knew this sounded good – an intriguing mix of sweet and savory ingredients – and I knew how I was going to quickly acquire the correct items: Trader Joe’s. My local TJ’s has reorganized lately, so while I had no trouble finding some half dried black mission figs, I couldn’t locate either rosemary or wild rice. I have bought, in the past, a vacuum sealed bag of already cooked wild rice, which I was planning the dinner around, and despite having a pair of very earnest and very determined young gentlemen scour the shelves, nothing turned up.
I went home.
With two key ingredients missing, I grudgingly went out to the garden and stripped a branch of my own slowly, reluctantly growing rosemary, all the while whispering to it what a good cause it was donating to, while my heartstrings cried piteously for the poor tiny plant. What I finally came up with was as follows:
½ of the biggest red onion I’ve ever seen, diced
12 figs, chopped (choose fresh or dried according to your preference)
1 teaspoon rosemary (only because I was stingy. Use more, by all means)
A few grinds each salt and pepper
2 TB olive oil
While the rice steamed away in my rice cooker, I heated olive oil in my largest skillet and cooked the onions gently over medium for 15-20 minutes, monitoring them carefully so they would just caramelize, not burn.
When the rice was done and the onions were nicely browned with deep, bronzed edges, I looked at the kitchen clock and realized two things. 1.) I was hungry, and it was already past the time we usually eat dinner, and 2.) it was already quite warm in the kitchen, and turning on the oven to bake this off did not sound like fun. It would take too long, and it would produce too much sweat. Instead, I decided to sizzle the rice briefly in the skillet with the other ingredients.
I dumped in the rice and added the figs – alien wonder fruit that they are – the rosemary and the seasoning. I let them all mingle for a few minutes while I finalized our side dishes: Italian sausages and green beans cooked in red wine. Then, service!
Each individual part of our dinner was good. The sausages were well spiced, the beans were zesty and crisp and salty, and the rice was delightful. It definitely read sweet, since the onions were mellow and tender and the figs were chewy and fragrant. I love the texture of brown rice, since it maintains an al dente toothsome quality even after its lengthy cooking time, and in this dish the slight chewiness was nicely comparable to the figs.
I can imagine there would be a nice woodsiness to the original version of this dish, both in flavor and appearance. Rosemary is such an earthy herb, and if you left the leaves unchopped they would look like little pine needles. Further, the dark, somewhat anise-musty flavor of wild rice and its similar piney appearance would make this a dish akin to a shady day on the forest floor. Pleasant but complex, with earthy spice and the surprising sweet crunch of the fig seeds.
Here’s the thing, though, and as with numerous moments this week this goes back to the “first world problems” thing: these individual dinner components didn’t go together very well. Here’s what I recommend instead to pair with this rice dish. Pound out a turkey or chicken cutlet. Spread a piece of prosciutto across the flattened surface. On top of the meat, crumble some gorgonzola or goat cheese and, if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe a handful of baby arugula leaves. Roll the poultry cutlet up around the meat and cheese and, if necessary, tie off with some kitchen twine to keep it closed. Bake or pan fry until the poultry is fully cooked. The salty, creamy richness will pair nicely with the sweet figs and onions in the rice, and the pepperiness of the arugula will provide a cleansing bite for your tongue.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering about this combination of ingredients, I’ll give you a quick run-down of my favorite pizza topping combination, and you’ll see the connection: on top of plenty of grated mozzarella cheese, distribute caramelized onions, sliced figs, prosciutto, and crumbled gorgonzola cheese. When the pizza comes out of the oven, sprinkle fresh arugula leaves across the top. It sounds discordant, but it’s outrageously good.
Go forth and experiment! And tell me how it tastes!