What's In Season: Figs
To me figs have an almost mysterious quality. They have a sensuous and sculptural appearance, like a little package containing a secret. Figs are an ancient snack food, mentioned in the Bible and some say also on the menu in the Garden of Eden. I won't venture an opinion on that, but figs are certainly a romantic fruit with an intensely sweet flavor. And while dried figs are available year-round, fresh green or black figs are one of summer's best pleasures.
Fresh figs also seem to be getting a longer market season. I'm not certain why that is but it used to be that green figs would only be available in the fall and they'd always be really pricey. But this year I saw my first green figs in mid-July and already the prices are dropping, albeit not to bargain prices (more on why they cost so much in a moment).
Most figs -- fresh and dried -- sold in the U.S. are grown in California; only Turkey produces more. It's believed the fig originated in the Middle East and came to the New World via the Mediterranean, in the 16th century. They arrived in California in the 18th century, along with the special breed of wasp once needed for fertilization. Today Smyrna/Calimyrma figs still need meticulous cultivation, including making welcoming homes for the wasps. But the more widely grown types of figs, including Black Mission and Kadota, self-pollinate without any wasp labor.
The fig itself, the soft pod that we eat, is actually the base of the fig plant's flower and what may seem like little seeds are in fact part of the fruit's structure. And it's all edible. Like dates, another popular Mediterranean fruit, most figs end up being dried and used in sweets. And also like dates, dried figs keep well without refrigeration and have concentrated, sweet flavor. In terms of nutrition, figs can pack a punch. They are high in antioxidants, potassium, fiber, iron, and unusual for a fruit -- calcium.
Raw, fresh figs represent only about 10 percent of our California fig harvest; the rest are dried. And the high price? It's because fresh figs are so fragile. They're fragile to pick, to pack, to transport, and to sell. And all that gets added to the final cost we pay.
Buying and Storing Fresh Figs
- Fresh figs are picked ripe. They do not improve after picking.
- A fresh fig is soft and has a fragrant, spicy perfume. If it's over-ripe or spoiling, it will smell rotten.
- It's okay, and in fact advisable, to refrigerate figs after you buy them. Even an afternoon sitting on your kitchen counter can cause figs to spoil.
- Don't peel them. If the tip of the fig seems coarse, this can be sliced off, but the skin is soft, easy to digest, and flavorful. If you want to give them a quick rinse or wipe the skin with a damp paper towel, that's fine.
- Above all, treat fresh figs gently and eat them as soon as possible after buying them.
Cooking, Serving and Pairing Figs
When it comes to serving and cooking with figs, pair them with flavors that compliment figs' intense sweetness.
Flavors to partner with figs include nuts, vinegars including balsamic and sherry vinegars, honey, cured meats like prosciutto and ham, warm spices including cinnamon and cardamom, herbs like rosemary and thyme, and dairy, especially cheese.
- Because they are so high in sugar, fresh figs caramelize easily when roasted. For example, wrap fig halves in a slice of pancetta or bacon and broil for about two minutes a side until the bacon is crisp and the fruit is soft and hot. Figs' flavor and soft texture also make them a good choice for baking in any recipe where you may otherwise use grapes; for example, as the topping for a fruit focaccia.
- Use dried and fresh figs on cheese platters as you would a bunch of grapes.
- In some recipes you can resuscitate dried figs by soaking them in wine, sherry, port, or just water. This will soften them and make them easier to cook with, especially if they're being added to a sauce or being cooked with meat or as an hors d'oeuvre.
- Wrap a whole fresh fig in a slice of prosciutto as a first course, similar to what's done with prosciutto and melon.
- Serve either raw or pan sautéed with thyme or rosemary as a side to duck or pork.
- Add to green salads and toss with pieces of crispy bacon and a sherry vinegar vinaigrette.
- Sauté with butter and a little honey or brown sugar and spoon over vanilla ice cream.
Because fresh figs are precious and usually costly, my favorite way to eat a ripe green fig is one that showcases its tender texture, beautiful color, and forward sweetness. I simply snip off any rubbery tip, cut the fig into quarters, and smear each piece with soft goat cheese. The contrast of the fig's intense sweetness with the cheese's chalky tang is for me, one of life's all-time best flavors.