Of Figs and Tempeh and Fancy Culinary Terms Like “Sear”

In some pools, you swim up to the bar. In my pool, you swim up to the fig tree. 

The Musing: Seared ahi or some other sea creature – a delicacy on so many menus. Do you know that according to scientists there will be no fish left in the sea in 50 years if we keep eating them at this rate? True — and truly frightening. Hard to enjoy that tuna after reading this, huh? Luckily, there’s a bounty of other things — of plant origin — that can be seared to delicious heights.

The Recipe: When we moved to our house about 6 years ago, I was delighted to find two very prolific fig trees. Every fall, I am joyously confronted with the quandary of what to do with the profusion of the luscious fruit. The last two summers have been unseasonably cool here in Northern California, so the harvest has been late and not quite as bountiful. But there are still enough figs on the trees to occupy a few weekends making jam, glazes and sauces. Of course, I eat and use them on a daily basis, in everything from smoothies, salads, desserts and simply enjoying them off the tree. Last night, I turned them into a savory sauce for tempeh. I first simmered the tempeh in a seasoned broth, then seared them in oil so they became crispy on the outside but juicy and tender on the inside. The sauce, a beautiful balance of the sweetness of figs, the mild acidity of balsamic vinegar tempered by some vegetarian chicken stock and infused with a hint of fresh rosemary, cooked while the tempeh simmered, and it all came together at the same time.

          I love tempeh, but find that for many, it is an acquired taste. Simmering it in a seasoned broth minimizes the “funky” flavor some object to, and makes it more palatable. Topped with the fig rosemary sauce, this is an unbeatable combination. I served it over a bed of quinoa with a side of braised Brussel sprouts.

Seared Tempeh with Fig Rosemary Sauce
The tempeh is juicy on the inside, crisp on the outside, and the sauce is a beautiful balance of fall flavors.
The Tempeh:
1 lb. Tempeh, cut into pieces about 2” by 3” and then split in half to make them thinner
2 cups vegetable stock
½ cup red wine
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
10 peppercorns
1 bayleaf
½ teaspoon sea salt
Place all of the ingredients in a 2-quart saucepan with a lid, cover, and bring to a simmer. Simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes.
The Sauce:
1 onion, finely minced
1 – 2 tablespoons oil or water for sauteeing
1 lb. fresh figs, diced
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup vegetarian chicken stock
2 sprigs (each about 3 inches long) fresh rosemary
Heat the oil or water in a shallow saucepan and saute the onions, covered, until translucent. Add the figs, vinegar, sugar and sea salt, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Add the stock and cook for an additional 10 minutes or so. Add the rosemary and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. The sauce should be thick.
To serve:
Heat a skillet, then add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan generously. When the oil is hot, add the tempeh pieces, making sure not to crowd the pan. Over medium heat, cook the tempeh for several minutes until well browned on the bottom; don’t attempt to flip them before they are browned. Flip and cook the other side until well browned. Server over a bed of quinoa or brown rice, topped with the sauce.