- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The Garden of Eden must have had an abundance of fig trees because in Genesis it says that shortly after the unfortunate forbidden-fruit incident, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

Wherever Eden is supposed to have been, we know that figs originated in western Asia and made their way to the Middle East and Mediterranean, where they have figured prominently in the cuisines of those regions for centuries.

Figs were a staple of the ancient Egyptian diet. The Romans used figs for barter and considered them a gift from the god Bacchus. The Greeks not only ate them, they also wore them as medals for Olympic achievements.

Enough about history. What about you? Everybody’s had a Fig Newton, but have you ever eaten a fresh fig?

Fresh figs can be eaten out of hand like peaches, pears or plums, and they are voluptuous. While the flavor is subtle and they aren’t particularly refreshing, they are sensuous, to be eaten slowly and savored for their soft pinkish-gold flesh and tiny, crackly edible seeds.

Figs are good sliced, sugared and served with whipped cream, sliced over cold cereal or baked like an apple and served drizzled with honey. You can substitute fresh figs in almost any recipe that calls for summer fruit: pies, tarts and compotes. They go well with soft cheeses and smoked meats and make a delicious addition to fruit salad.

An Italian friend serves figs as an appetizer draped with a wisp of prosciutto ham. A Greek friend threads figs on skewers and grills them over coals, basting them with brandy. A caterer I know cuts off the stem, snips the tops into a tulip shape and stuffs them with a chunk of goat or Gorgonzola cheese. One of my favorites is a composed salad of figs, Belgian endive, shaved carrots and prosciutto with ginger dressing.

When shopping, be careful to put fresh figs in their own bag and don’t stuff them in with other groceries. Store ripe figs in the refrigerator. They have a short shelf life, about 14 days.

If you travel the farmers market circuit, you will occasionally find local fresh figs in September. Figs appear in the supermarket from the middle of June through the first week of July, then again from the beginning of August to the end of October. All of the commercial figs we see in our produce stands are from sunny California, where four varieties of figs are grown. The Mission fig is most common.

When buying, look for ripe figs that are deep purple, almost black, plump and that feel soft to the touch but not squishy. Medium-ripe fruit feels a bit firmer. The skin of figs is fragile and can scar even from the leaves rubbing against the fruit during the growing period. These marks don’t hurt the flesh inside, however.

The Catholic missionaries who established missions along the California coast planted grapes and olive and fig trees for their own tables.

When the gold rush hit, miners flooded the area. For some of them, the second-best discovery was the sweet, hunger-squelching fig, a popular addition to their scant and monotonous diet. When mining didn’t pan out, some of the men took to farming.

The miners’ acceptance and subsequent demand for the fruit probably is responsible for the first commercial orchards in California, where the name Mission fig stuck.

The golden Calimyrna fig, with juice as thick and sweet as honey, gets its name from plant geneticists who combined a fig native to Smyrna — the Greek name for Izmir, Turkey — with the name if its new home, California. It’s incredibly delicious when sweet and ripe, and the crunchy seeds have a nutlike flavor.

If the figs are oozing from the bottom opening in the fruit when you buy them, all the better to gauge their sweetness. When dried, the Calimyrna is thought by many to be the finest variety in the world.

The White Adriatic is grown mainly for bakery products. This is the one that is made into fig paste for Fig Newtons.

The Kadota fig, the fourth main variety grown in California, is most often canned in syrup.

Unlike most fruits, dried figs are not picked from the tree when ripe and then dried commercially. Rather, they are allowed to ripen fully on the tree so that their sugars have time to concentrate. They’re well on their way to becoming dried figs by the time they loosen their hold and fall naturally to the ground.

The partly dried figs then are further sun-dried and processed for commercial use.

Take a look at a fig orchard, and you’ll probably wonder: What’s wrong with this picture? There are no blossoms on the twigs or branches, and you don’t see any beautiful blooms, as you do in other fruit orchards. The fig itself comes out at the base of the leaves, and the blossoms are actually inside the fruit.

Most folks couldn’t care less about how they grow. Me, either.

Roasted figs in the style of the Pyrenees

In the fall, when small purple figs are available, you can transform them into these cool, sweet, peppery delights — crunchy on the outside, softly melting on the inside.

1 tablespoon butter

18 small purple figs, slightly overripe

4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

cup shelled walnuts

1 tablespoon honey

Juice of a lemon, optional

Pepper mill, optional

Creme fraiche or sweetened whipped cream

Butter a shallow, flameproof baking dish. Place figs in it side by side, stems up. Sprinkle with 4 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Bake on the center rack of 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, basting figs from time to time with the syrupy juices in the dish. Add walnuts and sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon sugar. Lower oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake 10 minutes longer.

Carefully transfer figs and walnuts to serving dish. Drizzle with honey. At serving time, spoon syrup over figs. They are delicious as is. To further enhance them, sprinkle with lemon juice and a grinding of pepper. Serve cold with creme fraiche or softly whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.

Fresh fig tart

Ripe black Mission figs make a showstopper topping for a fruit tart. The fig slices look like petals of a flower when artfully arranged. If you want to avoid extra calories, don’t use pastry cream.

Instead, serve the tart with a strawberry or raspberry sauce. This recipe is from “The Cooking of Southwest France” by Paula Wolfert (Doubleday).

1 10-inch pastry tart shell, baked

2 cups pastry cream, plain or rum flavored (see note)

8 to 10 fresh figs (about 1 pound)

Orange marmalade or currant jelly

Not longer than two hours before serving, spread pastry cream over baked pastry shell. Cut figs into -inch slices or wedges. Cover surface of the pastry cream with fig pieces by arranging them in concentric circles in a slightly overlapping pattern, pointed ends toward the center.

Paint a thin coating of marmalade or jelly over the entire surface of the fruit to seal it and bring out the color of the figs. Makes 10 servings.

Note: Use pastry cream recipe of your choice. Many general-interest cookbooks and all pastry books contain recipes.

Baked figs in Port

This dessert is a joy to anyone on a high-fiber, low-fat diet.

18 fresh figs

cup Port wine

3 tablespoons honey or a bit more

Fresh red raspberries for garnish

cup whipping cream, whipped with a little sugar, optional

Prick each fig with a fork in a few places and place them in a single layer standing on end in a shallow baking dish.

Pour wine over. Bake in 350-degree oven, basting often with the wine, until the figs are puffed and tender, 25 to 30 minutes.

To serve, arrange 3 figs in a serving dish. Spoon a little of the wine over and drizzle each serving with teaspoon of honey or more, to taste. Garnish with raspberries. Pass whipped cream.

Makes 6 servings.

Fig and orange salad

Like the good California cousins they are, figs and oranges have an affinity for each other.

2 oranges, peeled, seeded and cut into segments

Lettuce

4 fresh figs, cut in half

cup sour cream

2 tablespoons orange marmalade

Arrange orange segments on a bed of lettuce on two serving plates. Place figs on the oranges. Mix sour cream and orange marmalade together and drizzle over salad. Makes 2 servings.

Honeyed figs

These figs are delicious with smoked or cured meats, pork or duck.

1 cup honey

⅓ cup Port wine

1 pound (3 to 3 cups) ripe dark figs, stems trimmed

⅓ cup lemon juice

teaspoon vanilla

In 5- to 6-quart pan, bring honey and Port to a boil. Add figs, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and simmer gently, uncovered, until sauce is reduced to 3/4 to ⅔ cup, about 30 minutes. (To measure, let bubbles subside, then drain off syrup into measuring cup.) Stir in vanilla. Let figs stand in syrup at room temperature overnight. The next day, gently blend syrup to smooth out, taking care not to break up figs. Serve immediately or pour into container, cover and chill as long as 2 months. Makes 1 pint.

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