Salad

Richard Olney's Fresh Fig and Mint Salad

September 25, 2013

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A novel, 5-ingredient destination for ripe figs -- that's fancy enough for a dinner party without any heavy lifting. 

Richard Olney's Fresh Fig and Mint Salad on Food52

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Figs are precious and fleeting and strange. So when you find them in season, ripe and sticky, it's natural to want to buy them all, but not know exactly what to do with them.

Don't stop at eating them plain -- there are all kinds of things you can do to a fig. Grill them! Stuff them in cornbread! But first, real quick, make this salad. 

Photo by Susan Heller Anderson for NYT

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.

Richard Olney's Genuis Fresh Fig and Mint Salad on Food52

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.) 

More: In the market for handsome new mixing bowls? There's a collection for that in Provisions.

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.

Richard Olney's Fresh Fig and Mint Salad on Food52

You're the boss of this beautiful, alien salad -- make it your own. 

Richard Olney's Fresh Fig and Mint Salad

Adapted slightly from Simple French Food (Atheneum, 1974)

Serves 5 or 6

2 pounds ripe figs, freshly picked, if possible
3 thin slices prosciutto, fat removed
12 to 15 leaves of fresh mint
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt
1/4 cup heavy cream, unpasteurized and thick if possible

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom, except Richard Olney by Susan Heller Anderson for The New York Times

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]

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15 Comments

Lemongrass&Lime October 8, 2013
I do love Olney and this recipe looks and sounds divine. Thank you for sharing.
 
William W. October 2, 2013
The finished salad is beautiful! (not to mention it sounds delicious) Way to go K+J!
 
Kinsey September 30, 2013
Chicken with lemon; leg of lamb. Remember that Olney is VERY particular in his instruction of technique. Follow what he says to do exactly, the first time on a recipe at least, and savor the brilliance of this challenging and magical chef
 
JadeTree September 30, 2013
So glad to see this here! I found it by paging more slowly than usual through Olney for my birthday dinner - and this was so simple and so audacious I had to try it. Two pounds of figs later, there was a table full of converts and not a scrap left on the platter. I hope others enjoy it as well!
 
CocoJuju September 29, 2013
I love figs, but they don't love me. They prick my tongue. Would dried figs work or some other fruit?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 30, 2013
Dried figs wouldn't have the same brightness, but I think other fruit could be nice here -- not-too-sweet pears would be my first thought.
 
[email protected] September 27, 2013
I make this during fig season, but I add small wedges of triple creme like Pierre Robert with the prosciutto. Delicious!!!
 
Musebe September 26, 2013
what can I substitute the prosciutto for?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 26, 2013
Are you looking for a vegetarian substitution? If so, something salty like capers or olives could be interesting.
 
Fairmount_market September 26, 2013
Even if I can't find fresh figs, I'm intrigued to try the sauce on other things. I could imagine it going nicely with grilled eggplant.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 26, 2013
I think it would be lovely with grilled eggplant.
 
jenniebgood September 25, 2013
Another fitting addition to the "Genius Recipes" collection, Kristen. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 25, 2013
Thanks, jenniebgood -- I agree, it's seriously genius. So glad JadeTree sent it in!
 
ChefJune September 25, 2013
Amazing! This IS a genius recipe. I've had this book almost forever, have read it multiple times, and don't remember ever seeing this gem. Hoping I can find fresh figs this weekend! Thanks Kristen.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 25, 2013
It's pretty magical. Do you have any other favorite recipes from the book?