Friday, October 10, 2003

All About Figs

When I was growing up we had a fig tree in front of our house. My sister and I were avid tree climbers but I have to say, fig trees are pretty lousy for climbing. For one thing the branches are fairly slim and won't hold the weight of even one child let alone two. Then the ants. For some reason ants love fig trees, so climbing on a fig tree means climbing off the tree covered with ants. But somehow it still seemed worth it to get to the figs themselves.

In parts of Asia and Africa the fig tree is referred to as a tree of life or knowledge. Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Moslems all talk about figs and fig trees in their sacred texts. The Greeks were positively obsessed with figs, believing them to be a gift from Demeter. In Italy the word fig is slang for female genitalia. It's really no surprise. Figs are a most bizarre and obscene looking fruit. So bizarre they're not technically fruit at all.

Figs are flowers, if you open one up you can see they are filled with seeds and those are the actual fruit. The flesh is really like the petals. But figs are nothing like any other petals you'll ever eat. Figs are soft, jammy and intensely sweet with a crunch that comes from all those seeds. Unlike apples and pears I think they're actually better raw than cooked. But if you do want to cook with them, think of them like jam; a little goes a long way. Mixed with something blander like apples they can make a good filling for baked goods like bar cookies or strudel.

I prefer fresh figs just as they are, eaten out of hand. But if you want to fancy them up here are a few ideas of what you can do with raw fresh figs.

* Wrap figs in prosciutto as an appetizer

* Serve sliced in half with a dollop of ricotta and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts

* Cut into quarters and dip into yogurt or marscapone, dust with cinnamon

* Poach figs in port and serve with vanilla ice cream

* Chop figs and mix with an equal amount of gorgonzola, spread thinly on toasted baguettes, serve warmed or at room temperature

* Chop finely and mix with vinaigrette to dress a green salad