Although dried figs are available throughout the year, nothing surpasses the unique taste and texture of fresh figs. Lusciously sweet, figs feature a complex texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin and the crunchiness of their seeds. Not to mention, they’re nutritional powerhouses. Fresh figs are a great source of vitamins B6 and K, manganese, potassium and fiber.
Figs have been traced back to the earliest of times with mentions in the Bible and other ancient writings. They are thought to have been first cultivated in Egypt. They spread to ancient Crete and then subsequently, around the 9th century BC, to ancient Greece. Figs were held in such esteem by the Greeks that they created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs. Figs were also revered in ancient Rome where they were thought of as a sacred fruit. According to Roman myth, the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. During this period of history, at least 29 varieties of figs were already known.
Figs were later introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean by ancient conquerors and then brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. In the late 19th century, when Spanish missionaries established the mission in San Diego, California, they also planted fig trees although it wasn’t until the development of further cultivation techniques in the early 20th century that California began focused cultivation and processing of figs. Today, California remains one of the largest producers of figs in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
There are hundreds of fig varieties but the following are most commonly found in U.S. farms and markets.
- Brown Turkey figs have brownish/copper-colored skin, often with hints of purple, and mostly pink/red flesh with some white flesh. This variety is used exclusively for the fresh fig market.
- Celeste figs are about the size of an egg, a purplish-brown when ripe, and a dark, sweet, moist, purple flesh inside.
- Calimyrna figs are known for their nut-like flavor and golden skin.
- Mission figs were named for the mission fathers who planted the fruit along the California coast. This fig is a deep purple which darkens to a rich black when dried. Often called “black mission figs”.
- Kadota figs are the American version of the original Italian Dattato fig and is thick-skinned with a creamy amber color when ripe. Practically seedless, this fig is often canned and dried. A similar variety is the “Peter’s Honey” fig. Since they are green when ripe, the birds don’t seem to know they’re ripe and don’t bother them.
HOW TO SELECT AND STORE
Figs need to be picked when ripe as they won’t continue to ripen after being picked. Since fresh figs are incredibly perishable, they should be purchased only a day or two in advance of when you are planning on consuming them. You want to look for figs that have a rich, deep color and are plump and tender, but not mushy. A ripe fig will feel be soft to the touch—but not too soft. It should feel like a ready-to-eat peach or avocado. They should have firm stems and be free of bruises. They should have a mildly sweet fragrance and should not smell sour, which is an indication that they are past their prime.
California figs are available from June through September depending on the variety. Some European figs are available throughout autumn. Ripe figs should be kept in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for about two days. Since they have a delicate nature and can easily bruise, you should store them either arranged on a paper towel-lined plate or shallow container. They should be covered or wrapped in order to ensure that they do not dry out or get crushed. If you have purchased slightly under-ripe figs, keep them on a plate at room temperature, away from direct sunlight.
Use a baking dish or pan that will allow you to bake the figs in a single layer. For this small batch, I used an 8×8 baking dish. Depending on how many figs you are roasting, increase the ingredients as needed.
8 fresh figs
1-1/2 tablespoons local honey
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 branches of fresh thyme, leaves only
fresh lemon zest
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Gently clean the figs with a damp paper towel. (Don’t wash figs under running water, as they will soak up too much additional liquid and become mushy.) Slice the stem end off of the figs with a sharp knife and slice each fig in half lengthwise. In the baking dish, gently combine the figs with the thyme, honey, balsamic and lemon zest. Turn the figs so that they are all cut side down, in a single layer.
For figs that are softer and juicier, cover the baking dish and bake for 15 minutes. For figs that are firmer, roast them in the oven uncovered for 30 minutes, basting with their own juices halfway through. When done, remove the baking dish from the oven and let cool completely, uncovered. (The sauce will get thicker as it cools.)
Variation: For less savory figs, replace the balsamic with Cointreau or other sweet liquor.
Storage: Roasted figs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week or in the freezer for 2-3 months.
Uses: Roasted figs work well in both sweet and savory dishes. Following are a handful of ideas although you can pretty much add roasted figs to anything – they’re that delicious!
- Serve as part of a cheese plate with brie, Mediterranean olives and a loaf of artisan bread
- Top ice cream (or add to homemade ice cream in the last five minutes of churning)
- Fold into pancake or muffin batter
- Spread on toast
- Toss into a spinach and roast duck salad
- Top a pizza along with crumbled Gorgonzola and fresh shaved Parmesan
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