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"Try some Turkish viagra," suggested the vendor at Istanbul's Egyptian Spice Market, smiling as he showed me a fig stuffed with a walnut.
Perhaps the idea for the name of this popular sweet came about because of the biblical reference to the first use of fig leaves. Or maybe because the naked Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. The greatest biblical scholar, Rashi, determined that the fruit of temptation was the fig.
Figs are native to the Mideast and are one of the oldest fruits cultivated by man. One of the "Seven Species" of the land of Israel, they are thought to have first been cultivated in Egypt.
All around the Mediterranean, when lush fresh figs appear in the markets, it's a feast.
According to the World's Healthiest Foods (whfoods.com), "Figs spread to ancient Crete and then... to ancient Greece, where they became a staple foodstuff. Figs were held in such esteem by the Greeks that they created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs... In ancient Rome... they were thought of as a sacred fruit."
Modern Greeks and Italians are also enthusiastic about them. "Everywhere in Greece," wrote Diane Kochilas, author of Glorious Foods of Greece, "Figs have always been an important source of nourishment... After they were dried, in the late summer, they provided an easy and portable snack for farmers in the field, as basic as bread and olives. Dried figs are also considered a meze for ouzo and other spirits... Plates of dried figs were sent as a good wish to couples upon their engagement."
Because fresh figs are fragile and their season is fleeting, they are fussed with as little as possible. Many people simply eat them as is, to savor their delicate flavor. They are also wonderful in fruit salads. During this season, one of my favorite fruit salads is fresh figs, fresh yellow dates and late-season peaches, with a sprinkling of toasted almonds, a drizzle of honey and a little labneh or rich yogurt.
But figs can be delicious cooked, as long as they are poached briefly so they don't fall apart. When I studied cooking in Paris, our chefs poached figs in red wine syrup, then set them in a sweet pastry crust to make a tart.
Fred Plotkin, author of La Terra Fortunata, a book on the cuisine of the Italian region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, cooks fresh figs in red merlot wine with a little sugar and a few raspberries.
In Mediterranean desserts, nuts may be figs' most popular partners. Israeli chef Benny Saida is clearly a fig lover; he is photographed holding a box of fresh figs in The Chef's Kitchen by Elinoar Rabin and Zeev Aner (Hebrew). His double-fig dessert is an inspired combination: fresh figs stuffed with creme fraiche (French sour cream), drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped pistachios and cinnamon, then served with a conserve of figs cooked with honey, sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice.
For Plotkin's version of stuffed figs, he inserts almonds into fresh figs and cooks them slowly with sugar, white wine and cloves, then serves them with ice cream. Kochilas stuffs figs with a mixture of chopped almonds, walnuts, cinnamon and sesame seeds, then bakes them with sugar and flavors them with mastic and bay leaves.
Fresh figs are not just for sweet dishes. According to David Downie, author of Cooking the Roman Way, there's an expression in Rome, "come pizza et fichi" (like pizza and figs) that means "everything is hunky-dory;" pizza and figs is considered a perfect taste combination. Pizza bianca (white pizza, without tomato) topped with split figs and strips of prosciutto is a frequent summer snack or appetizer.
Downie notes that cheese is another favorite partner for figs. "Stuffed figs have been around forever; the ingredients were staples of shepherds living in central Italy before Rome was founded. Fresh or dried figs and goat's cheese is still a popular combination in rural regions of central Italy." Cheese and figs have long been a beloved duo in Greece as well. In California, which is second only to Turkey in fig production, chefs are also becoming fond of pairing figs and cheese. John Ash, author of From the Earth to the Table, makes a salad of arugula, goat cheese and figs with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette. For his fig tart, he uses a base of ground hazelnut biscotti and a ricotta honey filling crowned with fresh figs.
Figs are a good source of fiber and potassium. They are fragile and perishable and should be handled with care. Ripe figs keep 2 or 3 days at room temperature, or can be refrigerated on a tray in one layer and will keep up to a week.
Figs in Fennel Syrup
This easy, refreshing dessert is inspired by a delicious Lebanese fig jam which contains anise seeds that I bought at my local Middle Eastern supermarket. Instead of making jam, I poach fresh figs from my garden in a light syrup with fennel seeds, which give an aroma similar to that of anise and provide a lively accent to the rich-flavored figs.
You can use purple-skinned or green-skinned figs. To make the compote with dried figs, use 1 1/2 cups water.
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds or anise seeds
170 to 225 grams (6 to 8 ounces) small fresh figs (about 2 cups)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Stir water with sugar and fennel seeds in a heavy saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a simmer. Add figs. Return to a simmer, cover and cook over low heat for 7 minutes or until figs are tender. Remove from heat and add lemon juice.
Transfer figs gently to a container. Taste syrup and add more sugar if you like, stirring very gently to dissolve it. Pour syrup with the fennel seeds over figs and let cool.
Refrigerate at least 1 or 2 hours before serving. Serve cold.
Makes 3 to 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.