In Season: Jewels of summer

Ripe figs have more sugar than almost any other fruit, so it's easy to understand why our ancestors were so attracted to these fruits.

figs311 (photo credit: MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
The fig is one of the oldest fruits known to humankind and one of the earliest cultivated fruits: The earliest evidence of figs known to us today are remnants of the fruit that were found in excavations of Neolithic sites that date back at least to 5000 BCE.
Figs picked not quite ripe can be kept at room temperature for a day or so, but dead-ripe figs are very perishable and must be refrigerated if you want to keep them longer than a few hours. Even then, they may not last more than a day or two.
In stores, select the ripest figs you can find, but avoid any that are obviously overripe – mushy, bruised, discolored or exuding liquid.
One of the best ways to enjoy figs is out of hand, warm from the sun or chilled from the fridge, and they are delightful halved or quartered and eaten with cheese as an appetizer, with honey-drizzled yogurt for breakfast or with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a spill of heavy cream as dessert.
But their uses in cooking are myriad, in both sweet and savory dishes. Roasting or baking intensifies their natural sweetness and concentrates the flavor, which can sometimes be a little bland.
Natural flavor partners for figs include yogurt, mascarpone and almost any cheese, especially blue and aged cheeses such as Parmesan; nuts; cured meats, lemon and orange; honey or brown sugar; ginger; pears; sweet onions (in savory dishes); balsamic and other mellow vinegars; fortified wines such as port or sherry. Some cookbooks suggest that figs be peeled, but their skin is so thin that I cannot imagine why anyone would go to that trouble.
For something a little contemporary, I like to halve fresh figs, add a dollop of goat cheese to the cavities, top each with an almond and bake them at 200 degrees until the cheese softens and the figs are heated through, about 10 minutes.
Sometimes I vary the formula by using blue cheese and pecans, which makes for an even more decadent starter.
Another sophisticated idea: Slice figs to top a sweet-savory pizza, all the rage in the hippest Italian bistros these days. Add crumbles of blue cheese. If you like, just before serving, strew some arugula leaves over the top.
Here are some other tempting ideas gleaned from recent cookbooks, followed by a couple of recipes from my own kitchen, that demonstrate just how versatile – and trendy – this ancient fruit can be:
Peach-fig syrup
At the legendary Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, chef Patrick O’Connell serves this wonderful syrup over puffy, light cottage cheese and buttermilk pancakes.
Melt 11⁄4 Tbsp butter in a skillet over medium heat; add 11⁄4 cup sliced peaches and 1 cup quartered figs. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a simmer.
Add 1⁄4 cup maple syrup; bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes more. (Can be made in advance and rewarmed before serving.)
(Adapted from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine, Bullfinch, $45)
Vanilla-roasted figs
At California’s much-lauded French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller makes vanilla-roasted figs to serve warm with ice cream: Cut split vanilla beans into 5- cm. lengths, slice off the tops of the figs and insert a piece of vanilla bean into a small slit at the top of each fig. While preheating oven to 250º, melt 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter in an ovenproof pan that will hold the figs standing upright; then add 11⁄4 tsp. sugar and stir to dissolve.
Stand the figs in the butter, add any remaining vanilla bean pieces to the pan and bake for 10 minutes.
(Adapted from The New York Times Country Weekend Cookbook, St. Martin’s Press, $23)
Broiled figs
Food writer and cookbook author Melanie Barnard suggests broiled figs as a romantic dessert for two: Quarter four figs and divide them, cut side up, among two generously buttered gratin dishes. Sprinkle figs with 2 Tbsp. light-brown sugar, a tsp. of grated lemon zest and 11⁄4 Tbsp. lemon juice. Broil for a minute or two, until sugar is melted and bubbly, watching to prevent burning. We might be tempted to pour some heavy cream over the top before serving.
Adapted from Short & Sweet: Sophisticated Desserts in 30 Minutes or Less (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95)
Figs and goats’ cheese salad
Salad maven Catherine Walthers tosses arugula, goat-cheese crumbles, shelled pistachio nuts and figs roasted with a little brown sugar in an oiled ovenproof skillet at 200º for 15 to 20 minutes. She dresses the salad with a balsamic vinaigrette.
(Adapted from Raising the Salad Bar, Lake Isle Press, $19.95)
The mascarpone cheese adds a touch of luxury but is optional; offer warm maple syrup and a bowl of plain yogurt as toppings.
Serves 6
✔ 1 cup chopped figs (about 10 small figs)
✔ 100 gr. softened cream cheese
✔ 1 Tbsp. mascarpone cheese
✔ Zest of 1 small orange, divided
✔ 12 slices halla or other white bread, about 1⁄2 to 1 cm. thick
✔ 2 eggs
✔ 1 cup milk
✔ 1⁄4 tsp. salt
✔ 3 Tbsp. butter, divided In a medium bowl.
Place the chopped figs, cream cheese, mascarpone and all but 1⁄4 teaspoon of the orange zest and fold together until thoroughly blended. Spread the mixture on each of 6 slices of the halla and top with the remaining slices to make sandwiches. In a large shallow dish, beat the eggs well and add the milk, salt and remaining 1⁄4 tsp. of orange zest.
Heat 1 Tbsp. of the butter over medium-low heat in a skillet large enough to hold two sandwiches. Place each sandwich in the egg-milk mixture, turning to coat both sides; do not allow bread to remain in the mixture long or it will soak up too much liquid. Cook the sandwiches, two at a time, until they are browned on both sides; add another Tbsp. of butter for each round. Keep the sandwiches warm in a low oven while you are cooking the second and third batches.
My mother’s recipe for fig preserves did not survive her, but I have arrived at something similar, with the addition of ginger-root, which she might have liked but wouldn’t have been able to find in stores in the days when I was growing up. I make these as refrigerator preserves, but if you want to store them unrefrigerated, feel free to go through the additional steps required for safe canning (among the many resources offering canning instructions is www.canningfood-
Yields 6-7 cups
✔ 8 cups chopped figs
✔ 3 cups sugar
✔ 2 4-cm. knobs of ginger-root
✔ 2 small lemons
✔ 1⁄4 cup lemon juice In a large bowl or dish, cover the chopped figs with the sugar and mix lightly to make sure the figs are thoroughly coated.
Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight.
Peel the ginger-root with a swivel peeler and chop it finely.
Wash the lemons, cut them into quarters lengthwise and remove all the seeds you can see; then slice the quarters very thinly crosswise. You will have thin triangles of lemon with peel still attached. Search out and discard any remaining seeds. Transfer the figs and sugar, with any liquid that has accumulated, to a large saucepan or a deep skillet. Add the chopped ginger-root, the lemon slices and the lemon juice and heat over medium-low heat to keep the mixture just bubbling. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and preserve-like; watch carefully toward the end and stir often. (Cook to a consistency slightly thinner than what you want the preserves to be, as the preserves will “set up” as they cool.) This may take up to 2 hours, depending on the moisture content of the figs.
Ladle the preserves into clean, sterilized jars and store in the refrigerator, or proceed with water-bath canning steps.
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