Fawning Over Figs

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in: Cooking

The end of summer heralds an array of exciting events: the start of school, return of cooler weather and, my personal favorite, the reappearance of fresh figs in markets. Depending upon the variety, this delicate, honeyed fruit can actually be found from May through December. However, for fans of the yellow-green Calimyrna or purplish-black Mission, right now is prime fig frenzy time.

If you’ve never tried a fresh fig, you’re not alone. In the U.S., the majority of figs are sold dried — and in the eponymous cookie Fig Newton. I find this a shame because when ripe, fresh figs are sweet, juicy and quite heavenly.

I’m not alone in my love of this plump little globe. In the Mediterranean, Africa and western Asia, where the fig originated, it’s a beloved culinary staple. High in calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus and dietary fiber, it has sustained and delighted the hungry for centuries.

A debated past

Historians debate the exact date and location of the fig’s cultivation. Generally they place it somewhere between 4000 B.C. and 2700 B.C. in Egypt or Arabia. Although the fruit itself is fragile, the hardy fig tree thrives in these warm climates and tough terrains.

Unsurprisingly, the fig possesses a long, rich history. It grew at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and appeared in the Bible and Quran. A favorite of ancient Greeks, it was mentioned by the poet Homer in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra, used a basket of figs to hide her method of suicide, a poisonous asp, while first century Roman gourmet Apicius utilized the fruit to sweeten and fatten his pigs.

Figs arrived in the U.S. in the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries introduced them to Franciscan missions in San Diego. The crop quickly spread to other missions along California’s coast. So great was the purplish-black fruit’s association with religious institutions that this particular variety became known as the Black Mission fig.

A California success story

To say that figs flourished in California would be a tremendous understatement. According to the California Fig Advisory Board, all of America’s dried figs come from the state’s Central Valley. In the past five years, this region has produced 28 million pounds of dried figs. That’s a lot of figs!

Because they bruise and tear easily, fresh figs are difficult to transport. In states beyond California, they’re considered a delicacy, showing up in upscale markets at high prices. Markets carry several varieties, including the aforementioned Black Mission, which has strawberry-colored flesh and tiny seeds. They may also have the pink-fleshed Calimyrna, the amber-colored Kadota or the large, white-fleshed, almost seedless Brown Turkey. The latter is in season from May to October, while the green and mildly flavored Kadota runs from May through December. Calimyrna emerges in July and August. Black Mission’s harvest begins in late summer.

An extremely versatile ingredient

When selecting fresh figs, keep an eye out for those that feel soft but not squishy. Skip the hard fruit; once figs have been picked, they stop ripening so won’t get softer with time. Avoid any with splits, bruises, black spots or wrinkles. Lastly, steer clear of oozing fruit.

You can store figs in the refrigerator for two to three days. Just place them on a plate and leave them uncovered. Rinse and then bring them to room temperature before consuming. Otherwise, the cold will dull their ambrosial flavor.

Fresh figs shine when roasted, baked, broiled or poached. They also go well with a wealth of ingredients including almonds, anise, blue and goat cheeses, chicken, citrus, cured meats such as prosciutto as well as duck, honey, pistachios, pork, raspberries, yogurt and walnuts.

When cooking figs, I tend to take a Mediterranean approach. From Greece, I make sika sto fourno, figs cooked in red wine and a scant amount of honey. Italy lends me such simple recipes as whole figs wrapped in prosciutto, halved figs dressed with dollops of mascarpone cheese or sliced figs partnered with Gorgonzola and red onions on a puff-pastry pizza. Meanwhile, Turkey provides me with fig jams and incir tatlisi, nut-filled, dried figs simmered in tea, honey, lemon and rosemary.

That I opt for Mediterranean-inspired recipes should come as no surprise. After all, I’m indebted to Spain and its 18th-century missionaries for introducing Americans to this lush and fragrant fruit. You shouldn’t just take my word on the pleasures of a fig. Grab some while you can and experience firsthand the exquisite sweetness of these plump, honeyed beauties.

Figgy Pizza

Serves 2 to 4

Ingredients

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
dash of salt
3 ripe black Mission figs, washed and sliced, or 3 dried figs, soaked for 10 minutes in ⅓ cup boiling water and 1 tablespoon honey before being sliced
1 to 2 ounces Gorganzola or other blue cheese, crumbled

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Roll out the thawed puff pastry and place on a baking sheet.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a small saute pan. Add the onions and sprinkle a little salt over top of them. Saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Bake the puff pastry until puffed up and slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and spread the onions and then the fig slices over the pastry, leaving an inch border for the crust. Scatter the cheese crumbles over the onions and figs.
  4. Return the pizza to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted and crust turns golden brown. Slice into equal-sized squares and serve.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.

Photo: Fresh Black Mission figs. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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