In Praise of Figs
Due to the positive response to yesterday’s post, I’ve decided to put aside a little time to celebrate figs. Known only as the sticky sweet interior of Fig Newtons (named after my hometown!) to most of us, figs are an ancient, Biblical fruit, and not just because Adam and Eve used the leaves to cover their bits. The passage “each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25), has been used to promote Manifest Destiny and modern Zionism. In the Q’aran, the Prophet Muhammad says of the fig, “If I had to mention a fruit that descended from paradise, I would say this is it…” The Indian fig tree is the national tree of India. In many cultures, the fig represents a woman’s….um….for obvious reasons:
Despite the fact that that last reason alone should be enough to make figs the most popular fruit in the history of mankind, I’ve found that figs are often maligned, misunderstood, mistreated, and neglected. My house guest, for example, hates them for two reasons: first, as a child he was forced to pick them in Sicily with his peasant grandfather and, thus, instead of pleasant, sexual connotations, they call to mind, and I quote, “the fat part of my family and I have problems with fat people” (really, cookie monster? Really?). Second, he thinks that figs themselves are fatty and sickly sugary. The vulgar reputation lives on!
Oh the other hand, my Mediterranean mother has lots of fond memories of figs and waits for summer’s crop with the kind of anticipation only repeated when panettone hits the shelves in December. So I’m guessing that in New England and other temperate climates most people dislike figs because we didn’t grow up with them. The same people who won’t eat that seedy, gooey, vaguely suggestive little fruit, though? They’re sucking down raw clams dunked in butter. It’s all a matter of upbringing, or, in house guest’s case, association.
Just to rest your worried minds, I looked up figs on the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, and didn’t understand anything! Except that house guest was wrong (seeing as there are only 0.19 grams of fat per fig! That’s the same amount of fat in a carrot). Other, more legible, sources attest that figs are extremely high – like overflowing – with calcium and fiber, two things most of us don’t get enough of. But they don’t have to convince me! I’ve been loving on these babies since picking them (clandestinely) off my aunt’s neighbor’s tree in Israel back in the day. In my defense, she told me to, and oh, what sweet, stolen rewards!
Recently, I experienced the most amazing figs in Puglia. The locals told me that the wild, uncultivated trees produce two rounds of fruit, most of which goes to the birds. I want to assume this is because the locals are too busy, but I’ve been to Puglia. Some of the fruit, though, stays on long enough to dry out on the branch, producing the sweetest, most flavorful figs I’ve ever had. It was like picking candy off a tree. They were gone so fast I didn’t even get a picture.
For the next month or so, it is prime fig season for all you up north, and, seeing as it’s a relatively short one, take advantage of it while you can. So, how to eat/prepare/store/enjoy your figs? Let’s explore:
To store fresh figs for more than a day or two, keep them in the fridge, though they probably won’t last more than 4 or 5 days. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to eat or use them. Dried figs last forever pretty much. They’re really good to have waiting in the wings. You never know when you’ll need to fancy up a plate of cheese or fill up your tanks on very little.
To eat a fresh fig, just bite into it! If there are any Italians nearby, they will start gesticulating wildly to warn you against eating the skin – which they peel off – but don’t pay them heed. Unless, of course, you found your fig in a pile of poo.
THINGS TO DO WITH FRESH FIGS
– Wrap whole or halved figs with slices of prosciutto, serve as an appetizer with or without a drizzle of good, thick balsamic or honey
– Serve with a cheese course
– Cut in half but not all the way through, stuff with gorgonzola or goat cheese, close back up, wrap with prosciutto or ham (or not) and grill or put under the broiler for 3 minutes until crispy. To be extra fancy pants, if you’re not using meat to hold it together, you can skewer your stuffed fig (excuse me, I’m blushing) with a rosemary twig. Serve hot!
– Make a pizza with fresh figs, caramelized onions, rosemary and cheese. I’d put the sliced figs on as soon as you take your pizza out of the oven. Maybe add some prosciutto, too. Prosciutto never hurts.
– When you roast a chicken, pop halved figs and, if you want, halved stone fruits like apricots or peaches, in the bottom of the dish. You’ll want to spread them all over your body.
– Make a BLF: crispy bacon, lettuce (I’d use arugula or baby spinach) and fig slices.
– Another sandwich variant: grilled cheese with just a smear of grainy mustard and sliced fresh figs!
– Make a tart: preheat oven to 375°F/190ºC. Make a tart dough (like this one) or use a store-bought crust, brush it with any jam, then cover with slices of fresh figs. Top with slivered almonds if desired, sprinkle generously with raw sugar, and bake until crust is done, about 30 minutes. Serve with ice cream or mascarpone with some lemon zest on top.
– Marinate quartered figs in sugar water with some liquor and citrus zest, then strain and serve over cheesecake, panna cotta, ice cream, pound cake, or custard. Add honey.
– Bake fresh figs in a casserole dish topped with some brown sugar, cinnamon, a touch of allspice and a dash of red wine. Serve hot with ice cream on top.
– Eat them for breakfast, quartered with Greek yogurt, honey and a sprinkle of muesli.
THINGS TO DO WITH DRIED FIGS
– serve whole with a cheese course.
– Make fig jam: boil chopped dried figs in water with a twig of rosemary until very, very soft, about 30 minutes. Add just enough water to keep from sticking or burning, mashing as you go. When it starts to look like jam, add a dash of balsamic vinegar and reduce slightly. Remove rosemary twig, mash up the figs with a fork serve with cheeses or in sandwiches.
– Add chopped figs, pitted olives and dried herbs to bread or foccaccia dough.
– Add them whole to the dish when you braise or stew meats like pork, chicken or beef.
– Make pizza the same way as described above for fresh figs, but put them on before sticking the pizza in the oven.
– add to muffins or tea cakes.
– substitute for raisins in oatmeal cookies.
– add to oatmeal with some brown sugar, maple syrup or honey for a hearty breakfast.
– make your own, homemade fig newtons. I’ve been meaning to do this for years.
– chop, then marinate overnight in rum, brandy or your favorite liquor. Place now-boozy figs on a wheel of brie or Camembert, bake for about 20 minutes and serve hot with honey drizzled on top.