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Figs: the World’s Sexiest Fruit

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

 

Photo credit: iStock

In front of my house stands a large green fig tree, shading the sidewalk with its beautiful pinnate leaves. I’ve been waiting all summer for the egg-shaped, green fruits to ripen. This week they have finally begun to plump up and sag off the branch, a sure sign that they’re ready to be devoured.

Unfortunately, our neighborhood’s foot traffic has the same idea, and every year we’re left with only a small handful to enjoy. Every passerby becomes a potential thief. We’ve tried everything to shoo folks away from the precious fruit, posting friendly signs, posting not-so-friendly signs…One year we even doused the tree in white flour with a skull and crossbones poster to scare the organic-philes away. We’ve tried everything short of sitting under the tree all night with a .22 and a six-pack of Rainier, but all to no avail. 

Figs (Ficus caprica) are the sexiest fruit in the world. The downy softness of their skin, their round bottoms blushing violet in the late summer sun…  Have you ever watched that ‘Sex and the City’ episode when Charlotte’s date starts suggestively eating figs? It’s ridiculous.

Figs are not actually fruits, but inside-out flowers known as ‘syconiums.’ High in calcium, potassium, fiber, and magnesium, figs are a healthy treat not to be missed this September. When harvesting off a tree, avoid the skin-irritating milky sap that might ooze out of the top of the stem. 

Most Americans don’t get closer to the real thing than the occasional Fig Newton. Figs don’t ship well and thus hardly ever make it onto the shelves of mainstream supermarkets. It’s very likely that millions of Americans out there are living oblivious, fig-less lives. Tragic. 

Luckily for us Portlanders, the Italian immigrants of the 1900s planted fig trees everywhere. Whether fresh or cooked, there’s no reason to shy away from the fleshy fig. Figs add a European sophistication to our plates. They especially complement creamy cheeses and savory cured meats. Time to grab the shotgun. 

Try these simple treats to start figging out: 

1. Poaching 

Master Preserver Kevin West in Saving the Season recommends a rosé wine for a more delicate flavor that highlights the earthy tones of the fruit. Bring 2 cups of red or rosé wine to a simmer with 2 tbsp. honey, a cinnamon stick and a few cloves. Lower the heat and plop 6 whole figs (with stems trimmed) in the wine and cover for 15 minutes. The skin will change color when they are fully cooked. Remove the fruit and reduce the poaching wine to a syrup. Serve the poached fruit in syrup over ice cream or fresh ricotta. 

2. Drying 

Dried figs are delicious in children’s lunch boxes as a welcome change from peanut and raisin-laden trail mix. Halve figs and place on a cookie sheet and bake at 175˚ F for 2-4 hours, depending on how dry you want the end product to be. Let cool and store in glass jars. Dried figs are eaten plain, or softened in water and stewed in hearty soups like tagine. 

3. Roasting 

Roasting figs caramelizes the sugars. Halve the figs and place cut side up in a baking dish. Season with a drizzle of maple syrup, a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of crispy bacon bits. Serve at room temperature with melted brie and baguette. Roasted figs also freeze well.

4. Boozing

Whiskey Fig Gelato. Brandied Figs. Everyone will remember your Christmas party.

5. Jamming 

While WWOOFing at a peach farm in Southern France, our host mother made a spectacular savory-sweet fig jam with balsamic vinegar. With very little added sugar, this jam is almost healthy. Bring a pound of black figs and ½ cup of water to a boil until figs start to fall apart. Add 2 tbsp. honey, 3-4 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, and a pinch each of salt, thyme and fresh black pepper. Cook for 20 minutes on low and then puree mixture with an immersion blender. 

An urban farmer and master gardener, Amélie Rousseau writes for fellow explorers and eaters of the plant kingdom. It's a jungle out there.

Banner Photo Credit: iStock 

 

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