Why Figs Rule the Culinary World
While most ingredients’ popularity waxes and wanes, the fig has remained a robust component in the larder of nearly every culture on earth- for thousands of years. Figs have earned their timeless acclaim through extraordinary performances in both sweet and savory dishes. Legendary health benefits and dietary advantages bolster figs’ exceptional reputation.
How fitting that the very first Olympic winners were outfitted with fig-leaf wreaths and rewarded with the renowned fruit itself. Athleticism was clearly associated with a diet in which figs were plentiful. Indeed, the fruit is rich in potassium, iron, fiber and calcium, all highly beneficial to building well-developed muscles and strong bones.
The ethereal side of the fig has been espoused by religions throughout the world. It’s been said that Mohammed proclaimed, “If I could wish a fruit brought to paradise it would certainly be the fig.” From Central Africa to the Far East, the fig tree is cherished and dubbed the “Tree of Life and Knowledge.” And a biblical prophet dramatized the importance of the fruit when he predicted that hordes of locusts would be sent to earth by a displeased God. The prophet went on to explain that the plague of insects would attack the world’s most precious possessions- fig trees.
The ubiquitous fruit has fortified global cuisine since time began – at least as far back as such things are recorded. And no wonder; the fig is versatile and agile fruit that easily assimilates into both sweet and savory fare. Recipes for duck, quail, veal and lamb accompanied by figs or basted with fig marinades and fig sauces fill countless magazine and cookbook pages. Breads from around the world incorporate figs to enhance flavor and elevate health benefits. Figs are often sweet components in salads contrasted with goat cheese, stilton or parmesan. Honey, pesto or port wine are often suggested dressings for salads that feature figs. Desserts that showcase figs include cakes, tarts, gratins and ice cream. Some of the most outstanding desserts consist of fresh figs simply enhanced with syrups or garnishes.
The Nutritious Fig
The fig is a powerhouse that packs a punch in the nutrition arena. For centuries, figs have been recognized for their nutrient content including potassium, calcium and iron. Beyond minerals and vitamins, the high-fiber content of the fruit contributes to fit, efficiently functioning bodies. The potassium in figs also plays an important role in regulating blood pressure.
In Season “Any dish involving fresh figs seems to herald the beginning of summer, with lighter foods and lighter dishes.” Chef Andrew Pern - check out his recipe
“Any dish involving fresh figs seems to herald the beginning of summer, with lighter foods and lighter dishes.” Chef Andrew Pern - check out his recipe
Figs are at their peak from early summer through early autumn. They are best picked at a mature, ready-to-eat stage because they do not continue to ripen after they are harvested. A ripe fig has some give to it when lightly squeezed, but is spoiled if it becomes mushy or disintegrates when handled. Dried figs, of course, are available year round.
Figs vary widely and include both edible and inedible varieties. Edibles range in color from black to white with the green varieties mostly used for drying.
Peggy Trowbridge Filippone lists the following popular edible varieties and descriptions in her About.com article on figs.
Adriatic: light green or yellowish-green in color with pale pink or dark red flesh. Not as sweet as other varieties. Noted for its pronounced flavor, especially when dried, and also eaten fresh.
Brown Turkey: medium to large, maroon-brown skin with sweet, juicy pulp. All purpose usage.
Calimyrna (Smyrna grown in California): large, green skin with white flesh. Less moist and not as sweet as the Mission. Most popular in its dried form. Having thick skin, they are usually peeled when eaten fresh.
Celeste: small to medium, violet skin with extremely sweet, juicy white pulp. Good fresh or dried. A favorite for container gardening.
Kadota: medium size, yellowish-green in color, thick-skinned with sweet white to amber-pink pulp. It has only a few small seeds. All purpose usage.
Mission: purplish-black in color with red flesh, full-flavored, moist and chewy texture. Best for eating fresh, but also good dried. They are named for the California Franciscan missions where they have been cultivated since 1770.
(Click here to read Peggy Trowbridge Filippone’s fig report)
In the best of all worlds, each of us would have a thriving fig tree just outside our kitchen doors so we could pick the fruit as needed. Unfortunately few of us have such a luxury. Consequently, proper storage is a must.
For all their strengths and vitality, fresh figs are fussy fruits. Whenever possible, use fresh figs in short order – a week or perhaps ten days if you have them in hand immediately after they’ve been plucked from their branches. Market-bought figs will often last just a few days, but their propensity to deteriorate quickly can be delayed a few days by refrigerating them when they are at their peak. Epicurious.com suggests storing figs in the refrigerator in a shallow plastic container lined with paper towels, loosely covered with plastic wrap.
A True Classic
Be assured that the fig is no mere fad that will fade into murky culinary memories of yester-year. Presenting dishes that pay tribute to the world’s most recognized and revered fruit is a time-tested practice that will prove as popular as a multi-medaled Olympic champion, and as enduring as time itself.
In this trend-obsessed world, one intriguing fruit has endured through the ages. Go figure!
By Jane Staley Boaz
Jane is a free-lance food and wine writer who lives in Cincinnati. Her newsletter, A Cook’s Chronicle can be found on her website, jsboaz.com.