Figs: Unique combo of taste, texture
This is the time of year when I’m glad my neighbors have fig trees. While you can buy a package of dried figs just about anytime, you can only find fresh figs during late summer and early fall. And, thanks to my generous friends, I’ve been the lucky recipient of several pints of these ripe and ready beauties.
They have a unique combination of taste and texture: the skin on a fig is smooth and supple; the flesh inside is chewy and sweet with a slight crunch from the tiny seeds
Fig trees, with their recognizable lobed leaves are known as Ficus carica, close relatives of the familiar houseplant weeping fig. 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 popular tan-fleshed Adriatic used for the well-known fig bars of our childhood.
Figs have been around for centuries, cultivated first in Egypt and then spreading into ancient Greece and Rome. From the earliest writings, figs were described as both a staple foodstuff and a sacred fruit. According to legend, figs were the favorite fruit of Cleopatra and how the asp that ended her life reached her side - it was carried in a basket of figs.
Figs became popular across the Mediterranean regions and were brought to the Western Hemisphere by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Although missionaries from Spain planted fig trees when they settled in San Diego, it took cultivation and processing techniques developed in the 20th century before California became a fig-producing powerhouse.
Fresh figs are among the most fragile and perishable fruits. Look for those with 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).
If they’re not quite ripe, let them soften at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. Although you could keep them in the refrigerator for a day or so, chilling dulls their flavor. As a way to use figs that may be past their prime, I’ve included a recipe for stewed figs.
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. Cured meats - bacon, pancetta - are good partners to wrap around fresh figs for a soft and crunchy combination. Rich goat cheese and a splash of Balsamic vinegar offer a lovely balance to sweet figs, as in the crostini recipe below.
Although there are any number of recipes that call for cooking fresh figs (braised in honey, sautéed for a salad) it doesn’t seem a respectful way to treat such a delicate and delicious fruit. I did find middle ground with the cake in the photo. Halved figs are gently baked into an almond-scented buttermilk batter, and the fruit stays intact to deliver its signature sweet highlights.
For a final piece of advice on the subject of figs, if no one in your neighborhood has a fig tree, you might want to move.
Almond Fig Cake
4 T butter
1 1/3 C buttermilk
1 t vanilla
1 t almond extract
2 1/4 C flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cardamom
1/3 C sugar
10 fresh figs, halved
1/3 C sliced almonds
1 T confectioner's sugar
Preheat oven to 375 F. Coat the inside of a 10-inch ovenproof skillet with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Place the butter in a glass mixing bowl and microwave on high for 25 seconds to melt. Whisk in buttermilk, extracts and eggs; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and sugar. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Ladle batter into the prepared pan and arrange fig halves across the top, cut side up. Slightly press the figs into the batter and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow cake to cool for 10 minutes and dust with confectioner’s sugar.
Goat Cheese & Fig Crostini
10 fresh figs
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1/2 t coarse ground pepper
12 thin slices of baguette
1 T olive oil
4 oz goat cheese
salt & pepper, to taste
Rinse the figs and pat dry. Trim away stem and coarsely chop the figs. Place figs in a medium bowl and add vinegar, salt, and pepper; toss to combine. Set aside for at least 15 minutes for the flavors to meld. Meanwhile, lightly toast the baguette slices, and brush sparingly with olive oil.
Spread each baguette slice with a thin layer of goat cheese. Top each slice with some of the marinated fig mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if desired.
1/3 C sugar
1 C water
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
3 allspice berries
1/2 cardamom pod
1/4 t pepper
12 fresh figs
Combine water and sugar in a small or medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add the spices and continue simmering for 10 minutes. Trim the stems from the figs and add them to the pan. Simmer another 5 minutes. Remove the figs with a slotted spoon and allow the syrup to cool. Return the figs to the syrup and serve over ice cream or mixed into yogurt.