Care for a fig?

When it comes to figs, Americans are of two minds. On one hand, one of America’s favorite cookies, the Fig Newton, is made with dried figs. On the other hand, comparatively few people have ever tasted fresh figs.

Somehow the popularity of fresh figs in the Mediterranean didn’t make its way to the United Sates with the wave of southern European immigrants. For example, for the holidays my mother always made cucciddati, traditional Sicilian cookies filled with dried figs, which she learned how to make from her mother, who was born in Sicily. But I never ate – or even saw – a fresh fig until I had left home and gotten into the restaurant business.

Who knows why? Perhaps it’s because those squishy ripe figs aren’t so attractive when swarms of flies, attracted by the figs’ intense sweetness, hover around them on sultry summer days. Or maybe people are taking the phrase “don’t care a fig” literally. By the way, according to “Eatioms” by John D. Jacobson, the fig in that phrase “is derived from the Italian word fico, meaning the snap of a finger. The phrase, like the snapping gesture, has come to symbolize something that is worthless; a trifling amount.” But as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing trifling about fresh figs.

HISTORY:

Probably no other fruit is mentioned more frequently in the Bible than figs. The Book of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

Figs were known in Egypt some 4,000 years ago and it was Cleopatra’s favorite fruit. The Romans, who thought figs a gift of Bacchus, the god of wine, introduced figs to western Europe.

The Spanish brought figs to the New World in the early 16th century. But the first fig tree in what became the United States was not planted until 1759 by Franciscan  monks at the Spanish mission in San Diego. The type of black fig they planted was planted again and again as Spanish missions moved northward in California to Sonoma, and thus it became known as the mission fig.

Commercial cultivation of figs in California did not begin  until 1885 with the calmyrnia variety, a combination of the words California and Smyrna, the latter an ancient fig variety from Turkey.  The commercial fig crop in California was almost wiped out until growers adopted an ancient technique for pollination called caprification. Caprification involves tricking wasps into taking pollen from the Caprifig trees to the Calimyrna trees. This enabled the Calimyrna figs to develop, whereas before they dropped their fruit before it had fully matured.

WHERE GROWN:

Fresh figs are still produced in great quantities all along the Mediterranean basin. California’s hot and dry central valleys produce the largest amount of figs in the United States.

VARIETIES:

Though there are over 100 varieties of figs, only a few are produced commercially. The Black Mission fig is the best-known variety grown in California. Despite the name it is more of a deep purple than black ,with a  pear or teardrop shape and a crimson flesh that, like all fresh figs, is loaded with tiny, edible seeds.

The Kadota fig is rounder with a firmer, thicker yellow-green skin and a pale interior that has a reddish-brown center. Large and squat, Calimyrna figs are yellow-green when mid-ripe and pale yellow when fully ripe, with an amber flesh that drips with syrup from the eye (at the bottom or stem end of the fruit) when totally ripe. They have a sweet, slightly nutty flavor but are rarely seen fresh, particularly outside of California, because they are so perishable. (“Three days from tree to trash” is how the fig industry refers to it.)

SEASONS:

The fresh fig season goes through two phases. The first begins in mid June and goes through the first week in July. This is the smaller of the two crops, about 10 percent of Black Mission figs, even less for Kadota. The season resumes in the beginning of August and goes through September. Depending on the harvest and weather, the season may go well into October, perhaps even to November.

SELECTION, HANDLING & STORAGE:

Fresh figs are extremely fragile and bruise or split easily. Handle them carefully and patronize retailers who do the same. Choose plump, fragrant figs that have a little give to them. Avoid those that are hard or dry, or figs that are split, mushy or show signs of mold. Occasionally figs will have some scarring as a result of the fruit brushing up against the leaves of the tree. But this does not damage the quality of the fruit. Black Mission figs should have slight cracking or shriveling, particularly near the stem end. This is not a sign of age but merely reaction to the sun.

Figs that are not fully ripe when purchased can be ripened at home at room temperature. Ripe figs are quite perishable and should be used as soon as possible. They can be refrigerated for up to three days, put in a single layer on a plate or tray lined with paper towels and covered with plastic wrap. Figs can also be frozen for up to six months.

NUTRITION:

A serving of three medium figs (153 grams, about 5 ounces) contains 120 calories, 28 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 1 gram of protein, 4% of the RDA for vitamin A, 6% for vitamin C, 6% for calcium and 2% for iron. Figs are also a decent source of folic acid (about 5% of the RDA) and potassium. Levels of potassium and dietary fiber more than triple with a similar amount of dried figs.

Benzaldehyde, a compound found in figs, has been shown in some tests to help shrink tumors. Figs are also considered a good laxative as well as an antiulcer and antibacterial food.  Figs may cause headaches in some people.

YIELD:

Eight large or 12 to 16 medium figs will equal a pound.

PREPARATION:

Not much is needed in the way of preparing figs. One of the best ways to eat them, after a good washing, is out of hand, skin and all.

A favorite appetizer is fig wrapped in prosciutto, eaten as a first course or an hors d’oeuvre. Another hors d’oeuvre possibility is to stuff figs with nuts or mascarpone, the luxurious Italian sweetened cream cheese.

Because they are summer fruits, figs have found their way onto the grill, but they must be handled gently, brushed with a little butter or oil and lightly charred, then perhaps drizzled with a little honey. This is a great accompaniment for grilled poultry, game birds, lamb or pork. Figs can also be wrapped in thin sheets of pancetta, the Italian unsmoked bacon, cooked until the bacon just crisps and served as you would raw figs and prosciutto.

Figs take well to poaching or stewing, by themselves, with other summer fruits or with dried fruits. They also bake well, just until they soften and concentrate their sugars even further.

Fragrant honey tends to go well with figs, though not much is needed if the figs are ripe. Walnuts are also a good accompaniment. Brandy or rum are good basters for grilled figs and go well in stewed fig preparations. Citrus fruit, particularly oranges, give a refreshing contrast to the unctuous quality of figs, as in a fig and orange salad. And because figs are so much associated with Arabic cultures, think of yogurt as a good companion to figs.

Though it’s not well known, fresh figs, like fresh pineapple, contain enzymes that prevent gelatin from setting.

CORNISH HENS STUFFED WITH BRANDIED FIGS

As a stuffing, figs add a wonderful, exotic flavor to small birds. Poussin are baby chickens, about a pound. They’re quite delicious but expensive. Cornish hens are a worthy substitute but run a little larger. If using Cornish hens, adjust cooking time accordingly.

  • 4 to 6 medium to large fresh figs
  • 1/2-teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 cup Port
  • 4 1-pound poussin or Cornish hens, giblets removed and rinsed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 4 cups rock salt or other salt

1)Cut figs in quarters. In a small bowl mix allspice with Port.  Put figs in a zip-lock bag, add marinade, close, shake back and forth a few times and marinate 1 hour.

2)Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put salt in a shallow roasting pan just large enough to hold all the hens without crowding.

3)Loosen the skin of the hens and season with salt and pepper. Season cavity with salt and pepper and stuff with drained figs. (If using small hens, you may have a few figs left over. Don’t overstuff the hens, however.) Brush the flesh of the hens with fig marinade and truss hens. Brush any remaining marinade over hens.

4)Put hens in the oven 30 to 35 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees in the deep thigh of the hens. Remove, let rest 10 minutes, covered with foil. Untruss and serve. Do not eat the skin. Serves 4.

Sam’s Cooking Tip: Roasting poultry – from Cornish hens to turkeys – on rock salt (or other salt) minimizes grease splattering. Just scrape off any salt that may have attached to the bottom of the birds and discard the grease-soaked salt from the roasting pan.

BASMATI RICE WITH FIGS, MUSTARD SEEDS AND GINGER

Serve this with a simple roasted chicken or butterflied and grilled leg of lamb.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
  • 1 jalapeno or other hot, small pepper, seeded and minced
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 4 small, firm figs, preferably Kadota, diced

1)Put butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add mustard seeds, onion, ginger and jalapeno. Cook until onion softens, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2)Add rice and stir. Add salt, figs and 3-1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low. Cover and cook 10 minutes. Turn heat off and allow to steam another 10 minutes. Serves 6.

FIGS POACHED IN CAMPARI WITH ORANGES

Campari is the red Italian aperitif that looks – and some people say tastes – like cough syrup. But it adds a nice bitter, herbal edge to the sweetness of this dish, which is wonderful for breakfast or brunch.

  • 1 cup Campari
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 12 medium or 8 to 10 large Kadota figs, stemmed
  • 2 oranges, each peeled and cut into 6 sections
  • Mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

1)Combine Campari, orange juice, water and sugar six in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer about 10 minutes.

2)If using medium figs, cut in half. If large, quarter. Add figs and oranges to pot. Cook gently until figs are softened but not falling apart, about 10 minutes.

3)Remove oranges and figs to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Put pan over high heat and reduce volume by about half (it should take 10 minutes or so). Pour liquid over figs and oranges and allow mixture to cool to room temperature.

4)For each serving, put 4 fig halves or 5 or 6 quarters in a shallow bowl with 2 orange wedges. Spoon liquid over fruit and garnish with mint sprigs, if desired. Serves 6.

Sam’s Cooking Tip: When you want to reduce a liquid, use a pan with as broad a surface as possible – such as a wide pot or deep skillet – to cut down on the amount of time needed to complete the task.

FIGS STUFFED WITH TAPENADE

Two Provencal favorites – though not necessarily together. But the tangy quality of the tapenade nicely balances the sweet unctuousness of the figs.

  • 15 oil-cured black olives, pitted
  • 2 teaspoons capers
  • 1 anchovy fillet
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, 1/4 teaspoon dried
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 12 ripe, small Mission figs

1)Puree olives, capers, anchovy and thyme together in a food processor or chop by hand.

2)Make a slit in the side of each fig and spoon about 1/2 teaspoon of tapenade into the fig. Pinch opening closed. Allow 3 figs per person.

BAKED FIGS WITH HONEY AND WHISKEY

If you are not a whiskey drinker, brandy or rum (as noted above) will do in this dish.

  • 1/4 cup hazelnuts
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup whiskey
  • 8 large or 12 small Mission figs, stemmed
  • Butter-flavor spray
  • Mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

1)Toast hazelnuts in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes. Put them in a tea towel and rub them against each other to remove skins. Chop and set aside. Raise oven temperature to 500 degrees.

2)Combine honey and whiskey in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off heat.

3)Meanwhile, cut figs in half, lengthwise. Spray a gratin dish large enough to hold all the figs in one layer with butter-flavor spray. Put in figs, cut side up. Drizzle with honey-Scotch mixture. Sprinkle with hazelnuts.

4)Bake 7 to 10 minutes, depending on size,  or just until they soften but are not falling apart. Cool to warm and put 4 to 6 fig halves on each of 4 serving plates. Spoon pan juices over figs. If desired, put a mint sprig in the middle. Serves 4.

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