You would think that as someone who loves having people over for dinner (and a food blogger) that I'd be a pro at appetizers, nibbles, and everything else to keep guests satisfied. But no matter how many times we host, it's always a scramble of what to put out while people are arriving and the main event is still cooking. Bread, really good olive oil, and nuts are the go-to's, and good local cheese if I remembered to buy some. I tend to keep canned beans on hand, so a quick pulse in the food processor with some spices, olive oil, tahini, lemon gives me the ubiquitous hummusy bean dip.
But with a little extra planning and not a lotto extra time, I knew I could make something that I could be more proud of. Taking a cue from a pizza combo I love—caramelized onions, figs, and goat cheese—I sought out to make an appetizer that could come together with pantry ingredients the afternoon before guests arrived or even a few days before in anticipation of their arrival.
Caramelized onions are in the same category as roasted garlic. Deceptively simple, uber delicious, and requiring little to no actual cooking. The heat does all of the work for you, and the best thing you can do is nothing. You just wait for magic to happen.
The secret to caramelized onions is to leave them alone for a lot longer than you want to. They'll start to look and smell amazing about halfway through, but they become exponentially better with time. Jammy, nuanced, and almost spreadable, they're a far cry from their raw counterparts. I love to make a huge batch of them for sandwiches for the week or even just to top on grain bowls in the winter. They add instant complexity and richness to a dish.
In this rendition, I cook them with woodsy rosemary, add a hint of maple syrup to enhance their sweetness, and serve them atop crostini. Toasted hazelnuts and chewy dried figs that plump up in balsamic vinegar are the finishing touches. The best part about this is that the figs and onions can be cooked separately and the hazelnuts toasted a few days before you expect guests and then warmed and assembled right before arrival. The result is a dish that looks (and tastes!) like it took all day, but really almost cooked itself. You're welcome to add goat cheese or blue cheese or substitute a different nut if you can't find hazelnuts. The real stars are the onions and juicy figs.
Caramelized Onion and Balsamic Fig Crostini
¼ cup olive oil
3 large sweet yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 fresh rosemary sprigs
1-2 teaspoons maple syrup, depending on sweetness of onions
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup dried Mission figs, sliced lengthwise in quarters and tough stems removed
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons water
¼ cup hazelnuts
Crackers or bread of choice, toasted, for serving
Heat oil over medium heat until hot. Add onions and rosemary and stir to coat. Reduce heat to medium low and allow to cook, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Stir again, and then allow to cook undisturbed for 15 more minutes. Repeat for 75 minutes or until onions are meltingly tender and a rich brown color. If using maple syrup, pour in after 30 minutes of cooking; it will also enhance the caramelization process. If onions start to stick while cooking, add a splash of water and stir. Discard rosemary sprigs when done and season to taste with a generous pinch of salt and fresh pepper.
Meanwhile, bring balsamic vinegar and water to boil in small pan. Boil gently for 1 minute. Add figs, boil for 30 seconds more and remove pan from heat. Allow dried figs to soak up liquid and soften as they cool.
Toast hazelnuts. Toast in oven or on stove top. In oven, toast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 7-10 minutes until golden and skins begin to peel off. On stove top, toast over medium-low heat, tossing often, for 10-12 minutes or until golden and skins begin to peel off. Remove from heat and transfer hazelnuts to a towel and rub nuts together to remove as much skin as possible. It’s not necessary to remove all, but it will remove a little bit of bitterness. Roughly chop hazelnuts and set aside.
To assemble, place caramelized onions atop crostini. Place a soaked fig piece on top (trimming if necessary to fit), and sprinkle with hazelnuts. Serve! Onions, figs, and hazelnuts can all be prepared 1-2 days ahead of time and assembled together right before serving. Makes about 1 cup caramelized onions and enough to serve about 10-12 people for appetizers.