Modern fossil discoveries have revealed that figs are among the first cultivated crops. Figs’ complex and beautiful nature as well as multiple health benefits (they are high in potassium, magnesium, fiber, calcium and iron), are frequently referred to in ancient Persian, Greek, Jewish and Arabic writings.
Adam and Eve hid themselves behind sewn aprons of fig leaves. Siddhartha Gautama was sitting under a fig tree when the revelation of Buddhism was shown to him. Figs are repeatedly referred to in the Bible to describe the attainment of a safe, peaceful and prosperous life, usually after a period of warfare or wandering. On the other hand, figs were the favorite fruit of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and Dionysus, his epiphanic Greek counterpart.
It makes sense that Bacchus would love figs. They are exotic and mysterious by nature. Smooth green skin covers a luscious interior of pink, strawberry-like flesh that is delicately striated and filled with what seem to be tiny seeds. In fact, the fruit is a swollen tree stem. The seeds are tiny flowers that have bloomed inside the swelling, seemingly by magic. In some fig varieties, such as Calimyrna, the flowers are pollinated only through an ancient, complex and symbiotic relationship with a tiny fig wasp.
In modern times, there are thousands of varieties of fig cultivars, some of them quite hardy, and many of them grown as shrubs used in edible landscaping. Common Figs, such as those typically found in the Mid Atlantic, don’t require pollination and are easy to grow. In fact, they grow so prolifically in our warm, humid climate that they can easily take over a corner of the yard. In just a season or two, they can explode in height and girth, becoming no longer a shrub, but a tree.
I have both a brown turkey fig, which produces a darker colored fig, and a verte (green Ischia) fig, which produces a green fruit with a fuschia interior. The brown turkey produces earlier than the verte, helping to extend our fig season. The verte though, is our favorite, because it is especially sweet, grows the largest fruit, and produces from late July to October. While we look forward to eating the figs straight from the tree in August and September, I also make preserves and even dry the figs, which we will enjoy in braises, stews and compotes over the winter.
Now that I am familiar with fig trees, I frequently see them around town. Often they are ripe with fruit, and I wonder if the lucky owners of these trees know what a treasure they have. Figs are very expensive at the grocery store, mostly because they are grown in warm climates far from the Chesapeake (the majority of figs come from California, the Mediterranean and Persia) and because the fresh fruit is extremely delicate.
A fig is ripe when it is soft and slightly pliant. The skin is thin and the interior flesh is moist, fragrant, and honey or peachy sweet. Sometimes the fig will split as it ripens or if we get a heavy rain storm. In this case, devour the fig as quickly as you can before greedy ants, hornets, fruit flies, bats or squirrels find it. After the heavy rainstorm a couple of weekends ago, I saw a fox feasting on fallen figs right in my suburban backyard!
Figs need to be picked ripe because they won’t sweeten off the tree. They can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days, but are best eaten very fresh.
Fresh Figs and Honey
Figs are naturally quite sweet; however, their luxurious texture and flavor meld perfectly with equally sensuous honey. This dish can accommodate as many figs as you need, makes a stunning presentation and is irresistible. You must find perfectly ripe figs: if they are under-ripe, they will have a tough skin. If they are over-ripe, they will lose their form and structure.
Halve fresh figs, keeping the stem end intact, and array on a serving platter. Spoon a dollop of mascarpone, crème fraiche or room-temperature chevre onto the figs. Drizzle very good quality honey over the figs. Garnish with a little grind of ground sea salt and pepper. Serve.
Options: This dish is wonderful served with roasted marcona almonds, roasted hazelnuts or warm black walnuts.
Fresh Fig Salad
Figs are delicious in late summer salads. There are endless ways to use figs in salads, but I like them with deep, earthy, sweet vinaigrette and a salty cheese. Try reducing balsamic vinegar to use as a dressing. Substitute a tangy goat cheese or a strong stilton or blue cheese for the pecorino. If you can’t find prosciutto, try Parma ham or cooked pancetta.
Salad: Toss fresh arugula or mixed salad greens with purchased Fig Balsamic Vinegar (available at Whole Foods Market and area specialty stores). Arrange on salad plates. Top with quartered fresh, roasted or seared figs. Surround with small strips of high quality prosciutto and shaved bits of Pecorino Romano cheese. Garnish with honey roasted walnuts.
To pan sear the figs: slice figs in half. Heat 1 TB of olive oil in a heavy skillet until shimmering but not smoking. Set the figs cut side down in the pan, making sure not to crowd the surface of the pan. If the pan is crowded, the figs will steam rather than sear and will end up mushy. Cook until the underside of the figs is golden brown.
To roast the figs: slice the figs in half. Place on parchment paper lined baking sheet; roast cut side up at 400° until the figs are plump and juicy, usually about 20 minutes.
For the honey-roasted walnuts: drizzle walnuts with a healthy dose of slightly warmed honey. Sprinkle with sea salt and bake in a 350° oven until the nuts are fragrant and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Break apart any nuts that stick together. Store leftovers (if you have any) in a plastic container. PS: use the nuts over ice cream- divine!
To reduce the balsamic vinegar: pour about 2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar into a heavy bottomed pot and cook over medium heat until the reduction is reduced by about half. Continue to cook, keeping a very close eye on the vinegar as it reduces further to a syrup and can coat the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, strain into a measuring cup or server. Immediately rinse your pan or you will have a hefty cleaning job ahead of you. Use the syrup while it is hot. It will store in the fridge indefinitely: it will congeal, but will return to a syrup at room temperature.
Option: add a couple of juniper berries, whole cloves, bay leaf or sprig of thyme or rosemary to the pot while you are reducing for added flavor and nuance.
This jam is awesome on sandwiches, with cream cheese on a bagel or even with vanilla ice cream. Try canning it for when you have a craving over the winter.
- 8-10 fresh figs or 1 cup dried figs, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup sugar (no need to add sugar if you are using dried figs)
- ½ cup honey (optional if you are using dried figs)
- 1 tsp lemon
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (please use real extract, not imitation)
- pinch of salt
- ¼ cup dry white wine (optional)
Combine the figs and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sweetener dissolves. Add the vanilla and wine. Turn the heat to medium low and cook until the figs soften, about 20-25 minutes. Using an emulsion stick, blender or food processor, puree the fig mixture, adding in the lemon juice and salt. Be careful! The jam is very hot and may splatter! Spread it on a baguette with jamon iberico (available at Whole Foods Market and Tastings Gourmet Market), slices of aged manchego cheese and a bit of arugula. Yum! I want some of that right now!
Some Other Yummy Fig Recipes
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