Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett