- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The season for fresh figs began early this year. I was surprised to see them the first week in June, about two weeks ahead of schedule, according to Rocky Palomino, a farmer at the El Cerrito Farmers Market in California and my personal fig mentor. Mr. Palomino gives me a big smile when he sees me in the crowd of fig aficionados milling about his table. The market is buzzing with activity on this sunny Saturday morning, but the customers at Mr. Palomino’s stand are quiet with concentration. Fig lovers tend to grow serious and intense during the selection process.

“This year, the figs ripened early because of the record hot temperatures this spring,” Mr. Palomino tells me as the crowd and the pile of figs on his table thin out. Gently I pick up a fig and cradle it in my hand. It feels heavy and warm. The deep purple skin is taut and veiled with a fine bloom, a sure sign that it’s freshly picked. This one will be lunch.

Fig trees bear two crops. The early crop, called the breba, is more sparse. It lasts a few weeks but yields larger figs. Then the trees rest while the tiny green “figlets” randomly attached to the branches grow big and ripe.

The second crop arrives in late July or early August. This more bountiful crop will keep fig lovers supplied through September. If the weather turns hot in the fall, as is often the case, there will be figs in the market well into October. Last year, thanks to a dry, hot spell in mid-October, we had figs for Thanksgiving.

There is nothing quite like a fresh fig. To sink your teeth into a fig’s soft, sweet, succulent center is one of the most sensually delectable experiences.

The fig is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, the most memorable reference being in the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”

Figs are an ancient fruit, native to western Asia and revered by early civilizations throughout the Mediterranean region, where the trees thrived. The early Egyptians are credited with cultivating the fig. They buried their dead with baskets of figs to keep them nourished in the hereafter. Legend says the asp that poisoned Cleopatra was hidden in a basket of figs, her favorite fruit.

Figs were introduced to the New World in the early 16th century when Spanish explorers attempted to grow them in Florida. However, figs didn’t prosper in the Americas until about 200 years later, when missionaries planted them in the southern part of California. There figs thrived, and the rest is history.

California has 14,000 acres of fig trees, which account for almost the entire commercial U.S. fig crop. Most are dried, and only a small percentage are sold fresh, although fresh figs are enjoying a surge in popularity.

There are hundreds of varieties of fig, but the commercial crop consists primarily of four:

• Black Mission (purple skin, pink pulp).

• Calimyrna (yellow skin, amber pulp).

• Brown Turkey (purple brown skin, pink to red pulp).

• Kadota (pale yellow/green skin, creamy amber pulp).

The Black Mission and Calimyrna are sold fresh and dried, the Kadota is used for canning and preserving, and the Brown Turkey is sold only fresh.

Dried Black Mission figs are small and dark with an intense sweet wine flavor, while dried Calimyrna are golden brown with a sweet, nutty taste and a pleasant crunch.

I visited fig orchards in California’s San Joaquin Valley and was amazed to see the figs drying on the trees. The sight of the small, brown, wizened figs stuck to bare branches against a cartoon-blue sky was almost surreal.

When the figs are adequately air dried, they drop to the ground, where they are collected, then washed, dried some more and packed.

In many recipes, fresh and dried figs can be used interchangeably. One of my favorite snacks is a fresh or dried fig stuffed with a small chunk of salty cheese. I use Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, asiago, dry Monterey Jack or cheddar.

To make this snack with a fresh fig, first halve the fig lengthwise and stuff each half with the cheese. For a dried fig, cut a small slit in the side of the whole fig and gently push the cheese into its soft interior. I like a piece of walnut stuffed into the dried fig version along with the cheese.

For an elegant appetizer, gussy up either version by wrapping it with a strip of thin-sliced Serrano ham from Spain or prosciutto di Parma. Fresh or dried figs also can be used to stuff into a whole chicken, Cornish game hens or butterflied pork loin before roasting.

Season the whole or cut-up figs with fresh-snipped herbs, chopped onion and garlic. One of my favorite quick versions of this recipe idea is for chicken breasts stuffed with fresh figs and goat cheese (recipe follows).

Both fresh and dried figs are delicious served as a condiment with roasted poultry or meats. Add just enough red or white wine to cover the dried figs, season with a sprig of thyme or rosemary or a cinnamon stick, and simmer until the figs are plumped, 10 to 20 minutes depending on their dryness.

Simmer any excess liquid until it is reduced to a syrup. I cook fresh figs gently in a skillet with a few tablespoons of butter or olive oil until they are soft but still chunky. Then I season the mixture with a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, some fresh herbs, coarse salt and a grinding of black pepper. This makes a delicious sauce for pork, lamb, duck or chicken.

Because fresh figs all have a similar flavor profile (although some are sweeter than others), the varieties, regardless of the color of their skin, can be used interchangeably in recipes. Often I will use a mixture of purple and green figs in a single recipe.

The only time I prefer green figs to purple is when I am adding them to risotto or pasta, because the purple pigment will bleed and turn the white rice or pasta a pale pink.

Hundreds of varieties of edible figs are grown worldwide. Although in the United States the commercial fig crop is grown in California, where the weather conditions are mild, figs also are grown from Washington state south to Texas, southeast to Virginia and the Carolinas and north to New York and Massachusetts. Many of these trees were planted by Italian and Greek immigrants who brought them as branches from the old country.

Planted in a warm spot in the garden or in pots that could be moved indoors during the winter, these trees needed special loving care to get them through harsh winters.

My friend Tony DiDio, who grew up in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, N.Y., remembers his grandfather and uncles wrapping their beloved fig tree before the onset of winter. When he asked his grandfather why the tree had to be wrapped, he was told, “Because the tree thinks it’s still in Sicily.”

Besides the four basic commercial varieties, there are others, including the Adriatic, a magnificent fig with a bright green skin and rose-colored pulp; the White Marseilles, another green beauty (also known as Lattarula or Italian honey); the small green- and yellow-striped Panache, with its intensely sweet, strawberry-jam-like pulp; the Dessert King, a large curvaceous fig with chartreuse green skin and deep red pulp; and many more with such names as Peter’s Honey, Petite Negrone, Everbearing and Alma.

Three years ago, we planted a Brown Turkey fig tree in our back yard in Northern California. Each year, we get a few more figs than the last, but still the crop is modest. I therefore must shop for additional figs at the farmers market where Mr. Palomino, my fig mentor, proudly displays his beautiful fruit. That reminds me: It’s time for lunch.

The following recipes are from my book “Fig Heaven” (HarperCollins).

Chicken breasts stuffed with fresh figs and goat cheese

Serve this chicken with a side dish of freshly cooked green beans seasoned simply with olive oil, fresh chopped mint and coarse salt.

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, fillets removed (see note)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup diced fresh green or black figs (about 6)

cup crumbled, well-chilled goat cheese

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

teaspoon minced garlic

4 slices (each about 1/8-inch thick) pancetta or bacon

cup dry white wine

Place chicken breasts, smooth side up, on a work surface with the thickest part to your right. Butterfly the breast by cutting three quarters through the thick side toward the tapered side so that you can open the breast like a book. Sprinkle the butterflied chicken breasts inside and out with tablespoon of the thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper.

In a small bowl combine remaining thyme, the figs, goat cheese, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, garlic, teaspoon salt and a grinding of black pepper. Toss to combine. Spoon the stuffing onto one side of each chicken breast, dividing evenly.

Close the chicken over the stuffing. Wrap a slice of pancetta or bacon around each chicken breast. Hold the breast closed and the pancetta or bacon in place with a small metal skewer or toothpick.

Heat a large, heavy, stove-top-to-oven skillet or baking pan over medium high heat. Coat the pan with a thin film of olive oil. When it is hot, add the chicken and quickly brown the pancetta on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.

Transfer pan to the oven and roast chicken in preheated 400-degree oven until cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove pan from oven; transfer chicken to a serving platter and cover with foil. Add wine to the pan and heat to a boil over high heat, scraping up the browned bits and reducing the wine to a syrup, about 5 minutes. Drizzle wine over chicken and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Note: The fillet is the long, slender piece attached to the bottom side of each breast half. Fillets sometimes are removed from the chicken breasts and sold separately as “chicken tenders.” Pull them off and reserve for another use, such as in stir-fries or soup.

Fresh fig quesadillas

1 tablespoons olive oil

4 9-inch flour tortillas

2 cups (about 8 ounces) coarsely shredded cheese, such as Spanish manchego, aged cheddar, California dry Jack, Monterey Jack or other cheese with good melting properties

1 cup diced trimmed, firm ripe green or black figs (about 8 ounces or 6 large figs)

2 tablespoons minced red onion

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Brush a large baking sheet with the olive oil.

Place tortillas on the baking sheet. Spread 1/4 cup of the cheese on the bottom half of each tortilla. Add a layer of fig using 1/4 cup for each tortilla. Sprinkle each with about tablespoon of the red onion and the cilantro. Top each with 1/4 cup of the remaining cheese. Fold the tortillas over to make half circles; press down lightly.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until tortillas are golden brown on the bottom, about 8 minutes. With a wide spatula, turn the tortillas; bake until the bottoms are golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove pan from oven and let cool slightly. Transfer quesadillas to a cutting board and use a knife or scissors to cut each one into 4 wedges. Serve warm. Makes 4 servings.

Fresh figs with mascarpone and orange caramel sauce

cup sugar

1 cup heavy whipping cream, at room temperature

1 teaspoons grated orange zest

teaspoon vanilla

8 large ripe figs, any variety, stems trimmed, halved lengthwise

2 large seedless oranges, peel and pith removed, oranges sectioned

cup (approximately) mascarpone cheese (Italian cream cheese)

For the orange caramel sauce: Sprinkle sugar evenly in a heavy 9-inch skillet. Cook, without stirring, over medium high heat, swirling pan from time to time until sugar has dissolved and turned a dark golden brown. Add cream all at once; it will sputter and begin to boil rapidly.

Cook over medium heat, stirring gently, until the hardened sugar dissolves in the hot cream and the cream begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Stir in the orange zest. Pour into a measuring cup. Cool slightly; add the vanilla. Serve the sauce warm or at room temperature. Or it can be made ahead and reheated to soften.

Arrange 4 fig halves in a circle, cut side up, on 4 large dessert plates. Place 4 orange sections between each fig. Place a rounded measuring teaspoon of mascarpone in the center of each fig half.

Drizzle about 1/4 cup of the caramel sauce in ribbons over each serving of figs and oranges. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Fettuccine with lemon, rosemary and fresh figs.

The acidity of the lemon juice and the saltiness of the Parmigiano-Reggiano balance the sweetness of the fig in this unusual pasta dish.

Salt

2 to 3 (1-inch-thick) slices Italian bread, crusts trimmed, torn into pieces

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons pine nuts

teaspoon minced garlic

1 pound fresh green figs (Calimyrna, Kadota or Desert King), stems trimmed, cut into -inch-thick wedges

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon chopped rosemary

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound fresh fettuccine

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Pulse bread in the bowl of a food processor until it forms coarse crumbs; set aside. There should be about 1 cup.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet; add crumbs and cook, stirring, over medium-low heat until bread is toasted and crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

Add pine nuts to skillet and heat, stirring constantly, over low heat, until evenly golden, about 3 minutes. Add to bowl with toasted bread crumbs.

Combine remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil and garlic in skillet and heat over low heat, just until garlic begins to sizzle.

Add figs and cook gently over low heat 2 minutes, turning carefully to coat with oil. Sprinkle with lemon zest, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm over very low heat.

Cook fettuccine in boiling water until al dente, 3 to 5 minutes depending on the pasta. Ladle out 1/4 cup of pasta cooking liquid and reserve. Drain pasta. Return pasta to pot; add the reserved pasta cooking liquid and the lemon juice; toss to coat.

Pour fig mixture on top, add butter and gently toss just to blend. Transfer half of pasta to a serving platter. Sprinkle with half of the crumbs and pine nuts. Top with remaining pasta, arranging some of the figs on top. Top with remaining crumb and pine nut mixture.

Cover the top generously with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve. Makes 4 servings.


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