For all its iconic presence in art, history and religion, the fig is not very well represented in the kitchen, despite the fact that it is one of the oldest culinary ingredients. Although they are of Asian origin, figs are among the first, if not the very first plant species intentionally bred for agriculture in the Middle East, predating the cultivation of grain by several centuries.
Though commonly considered a fruit, technically figs are flowers of the fig tree; an inside-out growth whose innards, in fact, contain hundreds of tiny flowers, each appearing as a threadlike fiber enveloping a tiny seed. The opening at the tapered end allows access to fig wasps, on which the trees depend for pollination. The miniature wasps crawl in, do their thing, and eat well while they’re at it. But that’s a whole other story.
Although there are almost too many varieties to categorize worldwide, ranging in size from ping pong ball to tennis ball in shades of brown, purple, green, yellow and black, the figs we see at most north American markets are more simply classified, like grapes, as purple (or black) and green. The fleshy, pale green-gold varieties are most often Calimyrna figs, a larger, thicker skinned fig with a mild, nutty flavour. The darker purplish-black figs are Mission figs; a smaller, thinner-skinned variety that are often mistaken for plums. In between, you may come across Brown Turkey figs in shades of purple and brown. There is no need to peel any of them, unless you find their skin particularly thick or leathery.
Cooking with fresh figs is a little like cooking with plums in that you can use any variety you choose as their size, flavour and texture varies only slightly from one variety to the next. All are soft, dense and pulpy with an earthy richness and sweet, heady aroma. The trick is finding them, and then knowing what to do with them once you get them home. Here are a few suggesions.
Roasted Figs with Honey & Hazelnuts: Sit fresh figs upright in a roasting pan and cut them almost all the way through, cutting from the top down, making an X. Gently push the figs open like a flower with your fingers. Roast at 400°F for 15-20 minutes, until soft; drizzle with good-quality honey and sprinkle toasted chopped hazelnuts over top. Serve warm with ice cream or on a cheese tray.
Here are a few more easy ways to love your figs:
– Cut a small slit in the side of fresh figs and press in a chunk of blue cheese, Gorgonzola or Manchego. Wrap in a thin slice of prosciutto and roast at 400°F for about 15 minutes, until the prosciutto has sort of shrink-wrapped the fig and the cheese has melted.
– Drizzle halved fresh figs with honey, add a grind of black pepper and roast at 400°F for 20 minutes; serve on a cheese platter or alongside a log of soft chevré and a small pile of toasted walnuts.
– Add raw or roasted halved fresh figs to a salad made with spring greens, prosciutto or Serrano ham, and crumbled goat cheese or Manchego. Dress with balsamic vinaigrette.
– Roast halved fresh figs alongside a pork roast as you might do with potatoes.
– Arrange small romaine leaves, curls of Parmesan-Reggiano cheese (done with a vegetable peeler), strips of roasted red pepper and slices of fresh or dried fig; instruct guests to pile a bit of each on the middle of a leaf; wrap and eat.
– To make fig jam, simmer 3 lb. fresh or 1 lb. dried figs, stemmed, with ½-1 c. sugar (according to your taste) and ¼ (for fresh)-½ (for dried) c. orange juice, port or water; cook, mashing with a potato masher or fork, until thick and jam-like. If you like, add a sprig of rosemary as it cooks, then pull it out when it’s cool.
– Thread fresh fig halves onto kebabs with chunks of pork tenderloin and purple onion; brush with olive oil and grill. Serve over couscous.
– Add fresh or dried figs to Moroccan lamb, pork or chicken tagines that call for apricots or prunes.
– Next time you make date squares (Matrimonial bars), replace the dates in the filling with chopped dried figs and use orange juice in place of the water.
photo credit: istockphoto.com/Karcich