Friday, July 01, 2005

Figs -- Unwrinkled!

Recorded music, meant to sound like a calliope, fills the air. Freckle-faced children line up, haphazardly and impatiently, to throw a softball at stacked, wooden bottles – visions of plush, stuffed-animal prizes dancing in young eyes. The ferris wheel twirls slowly while other, more-strenuous riding apparatus whirls quickly.

Summertime all over the land! Carnivals and fairs and circuses and festivals dot the landscape at small towns and large. And at each, happy children, young and old, stroll through bustling aisles – eating!

In my hand is a lovely, fluffy bit of summertime confection. So darkly pink that it shimmers rose-colored in the sun, its sticky, juicy particles dot my fingers. Bite after bite, the intense sweetness explodes in my mouth as the airy lightness melts immediately upon impact with my taste buds.

“Cotton candy?” one may ask. “WAY better,” I would reply. “Fresh figs!”

In fact, I can think (after MUCH consideration) of no better way to describe the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of fresh figs than to describe them as “like cotton candy: – only better and way, way healthier.” Think of those dried figs we all know so well, plump up their flesh with about three times their volume of satiny, freshly-sweet juice, toss in the tickle-your-tongue texture component of dozens and dozens of barely-visible seeds, and you will be on your way to imagining the mouthwatering goodness. Except that you can’t – really – imagine it until you taste it. At least, this Ingredient Sleuth couldn’t!

Available only June to October, figs in their fresh, un-dried, unwrinkled goodness, have to be experienced to be believed. Maybe they are so good because they are actually dozens of fruits in one. The fig, as we describe it, is actually a flower that is inverted into itself. The seeds – dozens and dozens of them in each fig – are the real fruit. It’s as if the world of botany gathered all its resources and playfully decided to package up something so rich, so succulent, so incredibly surprising that we mere humans would be astonished for millennia!

Figs have, of course, been around for (literal) ages. Fig trees are mentioned in the bible (in fact, are the most-mentioned fruit in the bible – sorry, Garden-of-Eden apple!) and figured prominently in the life and literature of ancient civilizations surrounding their native Mediterranean region. Greeks, Romans and eventually, Europeans (thanks to those lively Roman conquerors) considered figs to be a source of nutrition and of health. They were even part of the training-food regime for early Olympians.

Ancient healing potions and prescriptions called for the use of figs for ailments from head to toe. Straight through history, the potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, fiber (thanks to all those tiny seeds) and proteolytic enzyme (an aid to digestion) have worked their magic. Even early 20th-century, American medicine cabinets featured “syrup of fig!” But, let’s not dwell too long on figs as medicine; let’s just wallow in their hedonistic pleasures!

Over 90% of fig production is rushed into the process that will yield dried fruit, with durable shelf life. Only 10% of worldwide production, which is centered in the Mediterranean Region and in Central California, will be consumed in its fresh state. Luckily, I have finally found my way into participation with that favored 10% -- and I hope to help you find your way there as well!

Part of the difficulty in finding fresh figs to enjoy is their somewhat-short shelf life in their fresh state. Once ripe, with flesh that very slightly yields to the touch, figs will last for only about three days in the refrigerator. I hesitate to even use the word “refrigerator” though. Fig-perfection resides, I think, in nature’s best consumption path: tree to market to table to mouth, all without any un-natural variations in temperature.

Generally about two inches in length and pear-like in shape, figs are the ultimate in user-friendliness. You don’t have to peel them, seed them, de-pit them – you just simply eat the whole, beautiful fig. How’s that for a cost-effective botanical design? The only discard is the tiny stem tip.

Several varieties of figs are typically available in the fresh format – other varieties head straight to the drying process. Some are green-skinned, some brownish, some purple, some almost black. Names include Black Mission, Kaduta, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, Celeste and Calimyrna. I usually don’t quibble – I buy whatever fresh fig variety I encounter (though given a choice, I usually snap up the darker-colored ones which seem sweeter and juicier to me).

Fresh from the market (recently spotted at farmers’ markets, supermarkets, international groceries and my local Trader Joe’s), fresh figs seem to have a unique ability to disappear from the fruit bowl before they ever find their way to a recipe. Eaten whole in delectable bites, they are at their natural peaks of un-tampered goodness. Stuffed with tiny bits of cheese or nuts or even olive tapenade, they are a light and palette-invigorating appetizer. Poached in wine or baked until caramelized, they are a quick and elegant dessert.

The following recipe, from The Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters, Harper Collins 1999, features fresh figs in the seasonal, natural style for which Ms. Waters has become famous. Chez Panisse, the restaurant which she founded in 1971 in Berkeley, California, has become emblematic of her commitment to the use of locally-acquired produce that has been grown with sustainable-agriculture methods. In 2001, “Gourmet” magazine named Chez Panisse as the Best Restaurant in America.

Ms. Waters, a Visiting Dean at the French Culinary Institute, is the author and co-author of numerous books about cooking. She has received multiple James Beard Awards and is an International Governor of the Slow Foods organization (which promotes natural foods and the use of ingredients in their natural state). In 1996, Ms. Waters founded the Chez Panisse Foundation, which supports cultural and educational programs that demonstrate the transformative power of growing, cooking and sharing food. For more information about Ms. Waters, the foundation, her restaurants and her cooking, see


Serves 4 to 6

10 medium-size figs, about 1-1/2 pounds
¼ cup sweet wine, such as Beaumes-de-Venise, vin santo, or Sauternes
1/3 cup honey, warmed
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
½-pint basket raspberries

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Remove the stem ends of the figs and cut each fig in half. In an earthenware baking dish, place the halves skin side down, lining them up so they all fit evenly. Pour ¼ cup water and the sweet wine into the bottom of the dish. Drizzle the figs with the warm honey. Sprinkle the sugar over the figs, making sure each fig gets a tiny bit of sugar.

Bake the figs in the upper part of the oven for 15 minutes. Baste with the water and wine mixture and bake for another 5 minutes. When the figs are starting to caramelize at the edges, add the raspberries, tucking them into the spaces between the figs. Save any extra berries to garnish the dish. Bake for another 5 minutes just to warm the raspberries through. Serve the figs warm with vanilla or honey ice cream.

*Copyright Note*: Alice Waters specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

“Our wood oven gives these figs a wonderfully smoky, roasted flavor, but similar results can be achieved in a hot oven at home. These figs get caramelized around the edges and have a great aroma from the honey and sweet wine. If you use more than one variety of fig, this dish is even more beautiful. Heating figs can transform less-than-perfect fruit – figs that are a little tough or slightly over- or under-ripe – into a delicious and savory dessert.” (This quote is taken from Ms. Waters’ notes that accompany the recipe in the cookbook.)

The Ingredient Sleuth heartily concurs! This gorgeous and delicious dish somehow manages to retain all the wonderful freshness of the figs, even after baking. It is an elegant, yet sensible and easy-to-prepare, dessert. It provides a whole new wrinkle to the concept of fig consumption!

Bon appetit!


marc&terri said...

Not only is it hot and muggy here in D.C., but figs are in season ... now we know that it's summer for sure!! We ate figs for the first time in Sicily and are completely hooked on them. YOur description combined with our memories makes us drool!! Thx for the rminder that it's fig time ... we'll keep our eyes open at the markets. marc&terri

gabriella said...

It was so nice to read about figs. In fact, I have just eaten some during my mid day break period. Here in Belgium we are lucky to have good figs all summer. The baked dish with figs and berries sounds very nice too. I will have a look for some berries when I go to the market and try it. Good greeting for Independence Day in the US!

Jennifer said...

Always something new from the ingredient sleuth! I had NO IDEA about fresh figs!!! Gotta find some now .....

kristi said...

This sounds like a great recipe. We usually can find figs each summer, somewhere, if we look for them, here in Georgia. Alice Waters cookbooks are great too for those of us who like natural products and cooking.

Anonymous said...

The Chez Panisse cookbook is very good just like the restaurant itself. Highly recommend both.

linda said...

This recipe is superb! Even though we hesitated to devote our fresh figs to a non-raw use, we tried the baked figs. NO REGRETS! The whole family loved it!

Rena Nunley said...

I just read your comments re: figs...very interesting. Although I'm not a lover of figs for their wonderful taste, consistency, etc as you described, I am an almost-completely-hooked lover of them for their medicinal quality(which you seem to indicate they aren't proven to have!). I have found that for 3 consecutive times they have seemingly cured a severe cough. I tried them after reading in a magazine at a doctor's office that they were good for respiratory diseases! So just thought I'd pass that along for your readers.
By the way, figs' wonderful and perfect qualities that you describe must be ascribed, not to "botany", but to their perfect, ultimate-in-creativity Creator: God Himself!
Thank you for letting me in on your website!
-Rena Nunley(American in Brazil)