There are many reasons, I suppose, that cheese and crackers are such an evergreen entertaining staple. They’re is easy, doesn’t have to be expensive, and pretty much everyone except the lactarded (raises hand) loves it. Of course, ubiquity has its own drawbacks, boredom being chief among them. The question, then, is how to keep the combo from going stale… metaphorically, at least.

I’m not about to start making my own cheese though, and if I’m going to make crackers they’re going to be sufficiently awesome to not need cheese on top. That, then, leaves the third point of the cheese, crackers and… whatever triangle. Frankly, the “whatever” part is often the most fun to futz with. Fruit, nuts, shmears of honey, or dribbles of balsamic; these can all wake up a cheese plate with their presence.

And while baked feta and goat cheese with jalapeno jelly are both really fun, sometimes one needs something a little more deconstructed…. a little dish that friends can customize and fiddle with while I finish up dinner preparations. It’s nice to whet the appetite and give them something to do, if only to keep them from offering to help.

Enter this lightly spicy, wine-dark fig jam. Great with a variety of cheeses, from mild to sharp and soft to firm, it’s perfect for this time of year when there’s not much going on in the produce department yet but the desire for little al fresco nibbles is running high. The figs are simply simmered in wine with a little chili and shallots adds their regal oniony background. Cutting both into ribbons makes for a compulsively scoopable, tangly mess that ’s great with cheese and crackers, but could also add verve as a sandwich spread or as a pan sauce for chicken or pork.

Fig Jam
Yield 1 1/2 c

8 oz dried figs
6 oz shallots
1 tsp olive oil
2 c red wine
1 tsp Aleppo pepper (or other fruity, hot dried chili)
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 c water
1/2 bay leaf
2 tsp Dijon mustard
freshly squeezed lemon juice

Reshape the figs so they’re round and sitting on their bottoms. Pinch or cut off the dry tips off the figs and slice them thinly. Set aside.

Peel the the shallots and slice them in thin rings–about the same size as the fig slices. If the shallots are large, halve them lengthwise first and then cut them in half moons.

Put the oil in a small saucepan and warm over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the shallots and cook till lightly browned. Add the wine and scrape up any browned bits stuck to the pan.  Turn down the heat so the wine is  simmering and add the figs, seasonings, water, and bay leaf. Reduce heat to low and simmer till thick and jammy, 10-15 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent sticking or burning. Remove the pan from the heat, pluck out the bay leaf, and stir in the mustard and lemon juice. Let cool and adjust seasonings; adding more salt, pepper, or lemon juice to taste.

Cover and refrigerate. Let come to room temperature before serving.