Newtons are old news when fresh figs are available
A few years ago, my friend Liz Dolan gave me a cutting from her fig tree. The first year after I planted it, there were only a few fruits, and the birds found them before I did. Each of the subsequent years, there were more figs, but this year the tree has offered a proverbial bumper crop. Almost all of the branches are covered with green figs, but over two dozen were ripe enough to pick last week.
For those of you whose only acquaintance with figs is in the familiar childhood cookie, eating a fresh fig is a unique experience. They have an unusual combination of taste and texture: the skin is smooth and supple; the flesh inside is chewy and sweet with a slight crunch from the tiny seeds. Since they are so fragile and perishable, commercial growers tend to process figs into their dried form, or turn them into paste or jam.
Fig trees, with their recognizable lobed leaves, are known as Ficus carica, a member of the mulberry family. Their fruits come in a range of colors depending upon the variety, from Black Mission with deep-purple skin and pink flesh, to Kadota’s green skin and maroon flesh, to the tan-fleshed Adriatic and aptly named Brown Turkey.
Figs have been around for centuries, cultivated first in Egypt, then spreading into ancient Greece and Rome, and eventually across the Mediterranean region. Spanish missionaries brought the fig to Southern California in the 16th century, around the same time the plant made its way to England and China. Remains of fig trees have been found during archeological excavations at sites dating to 5000 B.C.
Because of the fast-growing nature of fig trees and the value of their fruit, many food historians believe figs were among the first domesticated crops. From the earliest writings, figs were described as both a staple foodstuff and useful medicinally as a diuretic and laxative. Many religions feature the fig as representative of fertility and prosperity. According to legend, figs were the favorite fruit of Cleopatra, and the asp that ended her life was brought to her in a basket of figs.
Fresh figs are only found in the market or grocery during the summer months. Look for those with a deep color and barely yielding flesh. Select specimens that are plump and tender without being mushy or marred with wrinkles and splits. There should be a slight bend where the stem joins the fruit and nothing shrunken or leaky. If they’re sold in a container, look at the underside to check for moldy or squished fruit.
Purchase figs only one or two days before you plan to eat them (or if you receive them as a gift, rinse and start nibbling). To store figs, arrange them in a single layer in a shallow container or on a towel-lined plate to prevent bruising. Alternatively, nestle them separately in the cups of a cardboard egg carton. Cover them so they won’t dry out (or attract fruit flies) and keep them in the refrigerator.
The sweet taste of a fresh fig makes it a perfect candidate to pair with savory foods such as salty, aged cheeses; consider stuffing them with a dollop of blue cheese for a simple appetizer. Scatter sliced figs on your next green salad, especially baby arugula, for a sweet surprise. You can also add fresh figs to your favorite smoothie for a nutritional boost.
Cured meats, such as bacon and pancetta, are good partners for fresh figs. Here’s a recipe that uses prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese. You’ll often see recipes calling for the fig to be wrapped with raw bacon and then sautéed or baked. This is not as delicious as the maple-syrup-glazed figs in the photo, topped with already cooked and crunchy bacon. Thank you, Liz, for a gift that keeps on giving!
Maple Glazed Figs
8 ripe but firm figs
3 slices slab bacon
3 T maple syrup
2 T rice wine vinegar
red pepper flakes
Slice the figs in half lengthwise; set aside. Cut the bacon crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Put the bacon pieces into a skillet in a single layer. Cook over medium, turning as needed, until crisp. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Drain all but 1 T of the fat from the skillet. Stir in syrup and return to medium-high heat. Arrange figs in the skillet in a single layer, cut side down. Cook over medium, basting with liquid, until figs are slightly softened, about 3 or 4 minutes. Arrange figs on a serving platter in a single layer, cut side up. Add vinegar to skillet and cook over low until thickened. Press a piece of bacon onto each fig and glaze with the pan liquid. Garnish with red pepper flakes.
Gorgonzola Prosciutto Figs
8 slices prosciutto
4 oz gorgonzola cheese
Preheat oven to 250 F. Coat the inside of a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Cut a deep X in the top of each fig. Place the fig at one end of a slice of prosciutto and roll to completely cover the base of the fig, leaving the top visible. Press 1 T gorgonzola into the opening in each fig. Arrange the figs sitting upright in the prepared dish. Bake to melt the cheese and crisp the prosciutto, about 12 to 15 minutes. To serve, drizzle with Balsamic vinegar.