Growing up in a humid, mid-Atlantic suburb on the East Coast, the only figs I knew of were the Newton varietal – but man oh man were they tasty! So when I moved to California and starting expanding my fruit and vegetable repertoire (not a difficult task, when my chosen produce at the time consisted of apples, berries, and iceberg lettuce), what could be tastier, I thought, than the inside filling of a
cookie fruited cake.
But as with most things in life (I swear to you, I promise on all that is good and holy, at some point soon I will post a whole series of posts that are kosher and/or vegetarian and/or vegan and/or don’t negate all their yummy nutrients by simply mixing with bacon and/or goat cheese…but today is not that day) they just needed to be wrapped in pork product to change my view.
Raw figs have a hint of sweetness, and a somewhat earthy, flowery flavor. When very ripe, they’re quite syrupy and gain sweetness, but to me the flavor is like a mushroom masquerading as a pear, with a suggestion of banana. It’s the mushroom quality I don’t care for, along with the slightly slimy texture broken by the rows of seeds that makes me feel a little like I’m biting into a raw sea creature. Dried figs, on the other hand, are basically candy, a concentration of sugar so sweet and yet so complex that I knew there was something in there worth exploring, even if it wasn’t eating the fruit raw out of hand.
Do something to a fresh fig, however, and you’re in entirely different territory – and when I say something, I mean almost anything. Poach in red spiced wine for a winter dessert served over ice cream, roast with any number of meats for a restaurant-quality entree, or bake into pies, galettes, tarts, cakes, or custards for a multi-layered flavor extravaganza of a dessert. Figs are incredibly versatile, and incredibly delicious if you pair them with anything that stands up to their complexity.
There are several varieties of figs, ranging in color from dark almost black, to almost lime green. They’ll get softer and softer as they ripen, and are at their sweetest when fully ripe (edible even to the point of mush if you plan on baking or something), but they don’t travel that well once they get close to that stage, so look for a little softness without bruises. They should feel slightly heavy for their size, and should smell slightly sweet, not sour. Very firm figs will not ripen further, so don’t buy them. To prepare them, I like to slice off the hard bit of stem at the top, but otherwise everything is edible, skin, seeds and all.
I love sweet and savory together. Medieval cuisine, aka gamey meats and dried fruit? Awesome. Mediterranean couscous salad with raisins? Bring it. Chicken salad with grapes? My favorite. My husband? Not so much. And by not so much, I mean I sneak the fancy prepared salad bar at Whole Foods when I have to buy lunch, and that is the extent of my exotic pairings. He doesn’t even do pork chops with applesauce or lamb with jelly (which, come to think of it, neither do I, so I guess our marriage is saved). So imagine my delight when I not only discovered this dish, but discovered that he loved it. Sweet, salty, savory – it could be a dessert if you put a sweet balsamic glaze on it, but makes an even nicer salad on top of a bed of arugula and a simple balsamic vinaigrette; but we like them just the way they are: delicate appetizers that you can pop in your mouth, the prosciutto crisp around the edges and the juices of the meat and fig mingling into a salty sweet syrup that pools beneath each morsel. As fancy appetizers go, they’re fast, decadent, and would be elegant if we didn’t end up licking our plates afterwards. A true endorsement, indeed.
- Fresh figs
- Goat cheese
- Sliced prosciutto (2 slices per 3 whole figs)
Options: balsamic vinegar, crusty bread, arugula, blue cheese
Slice the figs in half lengthwise. Slice each slice of prosciutto into thirds lengthwise. Place a small portion of goat cheese in the center of the fig.
and place in a 400 degree oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until the prosciutto begins to brown and crisp at the edges. (We cook them on an aluminum foil-wrapped sheet in the toaster oven for easy cleanup – it gets messy.) Serve warm, but not immediately – the centers get very, very hot and we always burn ourselves when we pop them in our mouth too quickly.
Other options? Drizzle with balsamic for a little acidity to cut the sweetness, serve with crusty bread to sop up the syrup that will form on the pan, or serve over arugula for an elegant appetizer/salad. Some versions call for blue cheese instead of the goat, so feel free if that’s your preference, but we’ve tried it both ways and in my opinion, the goat lends a sweet tanginess that goes better with the fig. If you use blue, I would definitely add the drizzle of balsamic.
For fresh figs:
Peel/Trim? No. Everything is edible, though I do like to cut off the top stem – just a centimeter or two.
Edible seed? Yes. Technically, it’s an inside-out flower, but whatever, you can eat the whole thing.
Edible when raw? Yes. Best when very ripe.
Worth the price of organic? Unclear. Figs aren’t that common, so they don’t show up on various “Dirty Dozen” or “Safe” lists at all, and from looking into growing them, it looks like they’re easy to grow in the right climate, and the main problems that affect fig trees can’t be controlled chemically, so it’s probably a reasonable assumption that conventional figs are not heavily doused in chemicals. If you’re buying dried, however, I would err on organic because whatever’s there is going to be concentrated in the drying process, as well as probably have sulfites added, as most conventional dried fruit does to keep them moist.
In season: Early Summer briefly, and then Late Summer through Fall for the main crop – though in a place like Southern California where they grow well, you can usually find them all summer long.
Best with: Almonds, hazelnuts, vanilla, orange, cinnamon, black pepper, rosemary, arugula or other sharp greens, gamey or strong meats, rich/creamy cheeses or desserts (custard, ice cream, etc.), deep red, jammy wines (port especially)
How to Store: In the coldest part of the fridge for up to 3 days, max. Don’t wash them before storing – if they get wet, they’ll mold quickly. If they’re already soft or squishy, use immediately as they won’t keep.