It's dinner party-fancy and attention-grabbing, but requires little of your time. That's because its genius lies in simple French cooking master Richard Olney's clever ingredient selection, and the ways he harnessed their tricks.
You might think this an odd-looking combination -- Olney writes in the recipe's headnote in Simple French Food, "French friends find the recipe bizarre, but all who have tasted it have been delighted by the clean, clear, surprising combination of flavors and fragrance."
We had to agree. Here's how it comes together:
First up, you muddle fresh mint in lemon juice and let it steep for 30 minutes.
Then you strain out the battered leaves, while their cooling oils remain. As Food52er JadeTree, who sent me this recipe, pointed out, "It pretty much solves the weedy mojito problem: mint flavor without the hairy leaves."
Next, you stir in some salt, then some cream. The acid in the lemon juice thickens the cream effortlessly, without curdling it. (It does this so well that if you use a whisk and not a spoon, you may unintentionally end up with tart whipped cream -- which isn't a bad thing, but Olney was going for something closer to half-whipped.)
As dressings go, this isn't like any we know -- instead, it's akin to instant creme fraiche or yogurt, but sharper, fresher. And if you thought making a vinaigrette was easy, try stirring this together -- it's designed to keep you from breaking a sweat.
But it gets odder still: you'll have chilled the figs in the coldest part of the fridge, before scattering them on the plate with the cream, prosciutto, and more mint. So many things taste better at room temperature, their flavors looser and more developed. But here, smacked against the coolness of minted-up cream, the chill is welcome. It's a bracing salad that acts like a palate-awakening sorbet. A plate that could feel heavy with the salty fat of prosciutto, the jammy richness of figs, and cream, doesn't.
Feel free to go rogue on the presentation -- I did. I couldn't abide peeling the figs. (Sorry, Mr. Olney.) If you don't want to bother criss-crossing them and opening them up like baked potatoes (per Olney), just cut them in half, or slice them thickly. Expose the opals in their split bellies and people will be transfixed, no matter how you do it.
Same goes for the prosciutto: No patience for carving a soft pile into matchsticks? Tear it into ragged bites, or just lay down a slice and provide your guests with knives.
You're the boss of this beautiful, alien salad -- make it your own.
Photos by James Ransom, except Richard Olney by Susan Heller Anderson for The New York Times
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."