Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bring on the Figs!

Summer turning into Fall is Fig Season on my calendar. As part of a composed salad, as an appetizer paired with Gorgonzola and walnuts on a crispy crostini or blended with sugar and port and simmered into sublime jamminess, figs are an autumn treat. And unfortunately, one that sometimes gets a bad rap. How many of us growing up were given those “healthy” cookies, Nabisco's Fig Newtons, by guilty moms, forever making figs a food to be avoided? I don’t know about you, and I think my kids once thought the same way, but healthy was synonymous with “Tastes lousy!”

Like a number of the foods I now consider absolutes in my pantry or on my table, figs have been an acquired taste. Maybe they are meant to be enjoyed by adults who have ascended many culinary heights, and finally find their palates leaning toward a more subtle earthiness; a flavor that, though divine on its own, can be enhanced by the creaminess of Manchego cheese, the saline accent of olives or the vibrancy of aged balsamic vinegar. Fresh figs offer a simplicity and versatility comparable to tomatoes with an unfortunate shorter growing season and shelf life.

California’s own Central Valley – Fresno and its environs, to be exact – is the major fig producing region in the US, with Texas coming in a close second. Though I am a partial to fresh figs this time of year, it is the 28 million pounds of dried figs produced annually in California that keeps us figged up throughout the year. Many recipes that call for fresh figs can be successfully executed with the dried version; just be sure to hydrate them first. Gently boiled in water mixed with some brandy or wine, if desired, should do the trick.

Her are some fig facts, thanks to the California Fig Advisory Board:

- The fig is the hot topic fruit in the Bible, and mentioned in Babylonian text as early as 2000 BC. Fig leaves, of course, were also the clothing of choice for Adam and Eve and there is some debate that the “forbidden fruit” may have been a fig rather than an apple. Whew…that may ease a few apple growers’ consciences’! Figs have represented fertility, abundance and new life in many different references throughout history and in both Biblical and mythological texts.

- In ancient Greece, figs were so highly valued that “Solon, the ruler of Attica {639-559 BC} actually made it illegal to export figs out of Greece, reserving them solely for his citizens.”

- Pliny the Elder, whose quote about artichokes I’ve included in a previous entry, liked figs a bit more, writing, “Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.” Figs, the wonder fruit, compliments of Pliny!

- Charlemagne, in about 812 AD, tried but could not get figs to grow in the Netherlands. Too cold and damp, perhaps?

-Captain Bligh, of mutiny infamy, planted the first fig tree in Tasmania in 1792.

As for nutrients, fiber, iron, calcium and potassium are all a part of a ¼ cup serving of dried figs, with no fat, no sodium and no cholesterol.

So enough with the facts, enjoy figs for what they bring to your taste buds – happiness!

There was on Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier

He danced hornpipes and jigs,
And ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia
- Edward Lear, English artist and limerick writer, 1812-1888

Fresh Fig Jam

Enjoy straight out of out of the bowl by the spoonful, or if you just have to be more sophisticated, serve as a relish with roasted rack of lamb or on a crostini with Gorgonzola or Manchego cheese. Thanks to Sara Nelson of The Kitchen Elves Personal Chef Service, Durham NC

8 oz ripe figs, Black Mission preferred, but any varietal will work well
½ cup fruity wine - I like Kastania Vineyards Pinot Noir

¼ cup sugar
1 tsp grated orange zest

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Trim off stems of figs and finely chop. Place in a saucepan and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low and cook for approximately 25 minutes or until '"jammy" in texture, stirring approximately every 5 minutes. Watch carefully and adjust heat as necessary - the mixture can burn easily!

Transfer to a bowl, cool and serve. The jam will keep refrigerate for 3-5 days, but I dare you not to eat it all at once!

Oven Roasted Rack of Lamb with Fresh Fig Jam, Couscous-Stuffed
 Heirloom Tomatoes & Sauteed Basil Summer Squash

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