Forbidden fruit: an abundance of figs
Fresh figs are a passion I discovered as a young adult. Before having my first sinfully rich, delectably sweet, and complex fruit, my experiences with figs were rather unexciting.
There has always been the Fig Newton – that ubiquitous tiny pastry with a smear of overly sweet, seedy and unattractively brown filling. As a kid, I liked Fig Newtons a little. They were a staple in my school lunchbox. I also liked the television jingle: “Ooey-gooey, rich and chewy inside…”
My grandmother had a thing for something called a “fig square,” which she procured from the neighborhood bakery. She must have thought they were great because she would buy a box whenever she had company and she would serve them with coffee or tea. I hated the fig squares because they tasted bitter and stale to me. I recall even trying to steer her toward the cupcakes and chocolate pastry items, which looked great and were in abundance, but she was a dyed-in-the-wool fig square person and would not budge from her usual routine. Unfortunately, these two items were the only known fig products in my small universe at that time.
In high school one of my teachers brought some fresh figs in for her own lunch and she offered me one. The moment I tried it I knew I had set a new bar for what a pure food pleasure was and I am hooked to this day. So, when I saw the heavily laden fig tree last week, I was in heaven.
Figs ripen in stages – many a day, many the next day, and the same after that. I’d say we were able to pick at least 50 each day we were at the house, which is a lot of figs to eat. Once the word got out, the neighbors started showing up. A good friend looked at the tree and said, “I’ll be back with my ladder.” He was back in a flash and in fewer than 10 minutes he had himself a bulging sack of beautiful figs. His plan was to incorporate them in pancakes the next morning. That’s one unique thing about figs: When you are picking them, you dream about the wonderful things you can make with them.
Over the days we visited, the fig tree became a great source of entertainment. The two mockingbirds that live in our yard decided that the tree belonged to them. When we approached, they would hang back a bit, but make a loud hissing sound – like angry cicadas – the entire time we were near the tree. But when any other bird – especially the crows – would approach, the show began. Mockingbirds make the best watchdogs of any animal I have witnessed. They were vigilant every minute of the day even though they only stopped to actually eat the figs once in a while. The crows wanted figs just as much, but were unable to sneak into the tree without the mockingbirds dive-bombing them and forcing them back behind enemy lines. We enjoyed watching the crows, which retreated to the neighbor’s roof to plan their next attack. They were staring at the tree and actually appeared to be whispering to each other. When it’s really hot and you are almost delirious because your brain temperature is higher than it’s supposed to be, eating figs and watching the bird antics can take up a good portion of your day.
We ate the figs three times a day. For breakfast one morning, I made a frittata with figs, bacon and Gorgonzola cheese. Yum! For lunch we sliced them in a salad. For dinner I made a compote of fresh blackberries and figs and served it alongside grilled pork chops.
One night we were invited to a dinner party and I made a platter of bacon-wrapped figs, which I broiled until they were crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Everyone agreed that you can’t find too many recipes that deliver so much taste with just two ingredients.
We have had sliced figs over good-quality ice cream for dessert and put them on a pizza shell with goat cheese, rosemary and prosciutto for an appetizer. When you have an abundance of figs, you need an abundance of recipes to go with them. When there are too many ripening at once, the only thing you can really do is make fig jam and jar it so you can extend the fig season into the winter when nothing tastes as fresh and sweet as it does in the summertime.