Ambato! The Place You’ll Go (and Eat Figs)
When you think “fall”, do you think “figs”? I didn’t either until I recently discovered this sumptuous fruit in the grocery store across the street from my office in the neighborhood of Albany Park, on the Northwest side of Chicago. This market, aptly named Chicago Produce, always displays an item of the day on a metal rack by the store’s entrance. One lunch break I walked into Chicago Produce, and beautiful green plastic baskets of plump purple figs lined the racks of the item of the day display. This fortuitous fruit discovery immediately triggered memories of roasted fig sandwiches in Ambato, Ecuador, and my mouth was watering with the thought of devouring another such sandwich.
While studying abroad in Ecuador, I traveled to Ambato because of the city’s huge celebrations for Carnival, which goes a little something like Mardi Gras. Throughout Ecuador during Carnival, it’s common for the young and not-so-young alike to “play” with water by throwing water balloons, squirting water guns, and pouring water on passersby. In the city limits of Ambato playing with water is not allowed, and instead around every corner lurked the evil of all evils: espuma de carnival carioca, which is essentially brightly colored shaving cream in a can with fun labeling. Between defending myself from being sprayed with carioca in the eyes, ears, nose, you name it, with my own can of carioca (which a member of the Ecuadorian army took away from me) or trying to catch a glimpse of the popular Flowers and Fruit parade by climbing a ladder propped up against a wall (the ladders were shortly after confiscated by the Ecuadorian police), I kept catching whiffs of the most delicious street food I’d yet come across in Ecuador. I spotted several food carts and found out they were selling roasted fig sandwiches. The deliciously sweet smell of the roasted figs drew me in. I threw caution and fear of parasites to the wind, bought a sandwich, and to play it slightly on the safe side (just enough for good measure); I ate half of the sandwich. The figs were hot, tender, and juicy. The melty white cheese between the figs and the bread was complimentary, and the toasted bun was as delicious and light as a round little buttered cloud. I’d never eaten fresh figs before, and I was smitten. Go figure!
From Ambato, I quickly escaped to the indigenous weavers’ town of Salasaca after deciding not to stay in the dirtiest hostel I’d ever seen and also after having retired from the battles of spraying carioca. However, the Carnival festivities continued in Salasaca. While walking down the road I had a bucket of water dumped over my head by two children on a roof. Later in the night, the owner of the hostel where I was staying brought me and my friends to a traditional celebration of Carnival where they “played” with flour. Two teenage girls at the party were so kind as to cover my face with flour while the corn soup, chicha, and agua ardiente were passed around to me and three men danced with bells on their feet to the rhythm of traditional music being played. I enjoyed the other half of my fig sandwich the next day in this more peaceful setting, where I passed women walking along the dirt roads spinning wool into yarn and folks greeted me in Quichua, the traditional language still spoken by a third of the population in Ecuador.
Fast forward to Chicago, 2011, the aisles of Chicago Produce. I bought a container of figs for a few dollars and later looked up a recipe for roasting figs. On my way home I bought brioche rolls, fresh mozzarella cheese, and rosemary ham. I washed, stemmed, and halved the figs, revealing their vibrant pink seedy innards. Then I placed them pink-side-up on a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil, drizzled the figs with honey and a whisper of black pepper, and roasted them in the oven at 375. After 15 minutes, voilà! I had created a hot juicy masterpiece! I was amazed how heavenly these little fruits smelled once they were roasted and their red juices swam on the pan. I toasted the brioche, sliced and buttered, sliced side- down on a frying pan. Then I put several figs on the brioche, layered on a few thin slices of rosemary ham, and topped it off with mozzarella. The final product and roasted fruits of my labor was a decadent sandwich and fig-induced nostalgia for Ecuadorian food carts and traveling with little more than a copy of Lonely Planet in my hand and a couple of adventurous girlfriends at my side.
For more directions and the source of my inspiration for the oven temperature and duration of roasting, check out The Fig Test Kitchen.