Tender, ripe figs require no manipulation or fuss. But once you've had your fill of them in their sweet, natural state, try them with meats or salad greens, or in baked desserts. The fresh, fleshy fruits add honeyed flavor and lush texture to any dish.
Perfection Is A Fresh Fig
Julie O'Hara for NPR
There may be nothing as threatening to a pastry chef as a perfect fresh fig. No sugar-busting diet fad or belt-tightening economic climate can compare.
Dessert pros may praise fresh figs in cooking magazines and even include them on their restaurant menus, but those are attempts at misdirection — valiant gambits to conceal the secret fear that their most decadent, nuanced, creative dessert hardly stands a chance against a perfect fresh fig.
Professional pastry chefs know that the fig, alone and unembellished, has it all. I doubt that even a think tank of the world's most gifted culinary minds could find a way to improve upon a fresh fig in flavor, texture or appearance.
It's only fitting, then, that the fig is extraordinary in botanical terms, too. The "fruit" is actually an inverted flower with a collection of unopened blooms lining the inner wall of the delicate sack. Some fig varieties are self-pollinating, while others rely on fig wasps to help those tiny flowers produce hundreds of seeds. This juicy mass of seeds is what we recognize as the fruit's flesh.
Ranging in tone from blush to deep magenta, this sticky, seeded flesh is visually stunning. A food like this resists artifice, disdains garnishes and sauces, and looks best halved down the middle on a plain white dish.
A tender, ripe fig is heavy with its own syrupy liqueur, which tends to drizzle out of its base if you wait too long to eat it. The taste is all honey-like sweetness with a subtle hint of berry and fresher shades of the flavor you might recognize from a certain cookie. A simple, untouched fig is, for me, an extraordinary food.
This is why I'm reluctant to involve a fig in anything approximating a recipe. A recipe implies cooking, or the manipulation of ingredients. Fresh figs require neither manipulation nor fuss. Unlike Adam and Eve, who covered themselves in shame with fig leaves in the biblical Garden of Eden, figs are best left naked.
The ideal candidate for this less-is-more approach is the black mission fig, California's earliest variety, grown primarily in the hot, dry Central Valley. It was first brought to San Diego in 1759 by Spanish priests who traveled up the coast and established a string of Catholic missions, planting fig trees at each one.
The velvety, edible skin of the mission fig is a deep purple color, and it's shaped like a curvy raindrop. The flesh is dark pink with a hint of dusty brown. Its intensely jammy flavor is balanced by soft, fruity acidity, preventing the sweetness from turning to pure candy.
The calimyrna, a round, light green variety originally from Turkey, has a nutty flavor that makes me crave tawny port. The brown turkey fig is the most commonly grown fresh fig in California — where 98 percent of the country's fresh figs are cultivated — and has a milder figgy flavor than the other two. The fourth main California variety, the sweet green kadota, is originally from Italy and is favored for drying and preserving.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a tree of your own, it would have been difficult to find fresh figs outside of California farmers markets until recent years. Figs are also grown commercially in Texas, but most go to processing. This was the case in California, too, until farmers realized that fresh figs could fetch a higher price per pound than the dried figs that are ground into paste and sold to food manufacturers. Furthermore, consumers loved them.
With sales of fresh figs increasing by 30 percent each year for the past five years, they are becoming easier to find in markets around the country, often twice a year. The first crop comes in late spring to early summer from the previous year's growth, while the larger main crop is harvested in late summer through early fall.
With figs' popularity on the rise, I'm betting pastry chefs everywhere are holed up in their kitchens, cracking eggs and slinging flour with a single goal in mind: achieving the luscious play of flavor and texture that nature bestows upon a perfect fresh fig. I feel sympathetic to their plight, so I hope you'll join me and order their creme brulees and chocolate tarts when you're dining out, even if you have a basket of lovely fresh figs waiting at home.
The truth is that figs are wonderful for cooking, once you've had your fill of them in their natural state. Figs elevate the food around them and shine in their own right.
Roasted with meats, poached in wine, tossed with salad greens or baked into desserts, figs add honeyed flavor and lush texture to any dish. They make unusual sweet chutneys and preserves, addictive gelato and an out-of-this world pizza topping when paired with prosciutto.
My absolute favorite way to eat a fig is cut in half with a chunk of feta cheese nudged into the center. That way, it's not so much cooking, but rather gilding the lily.