Food & Drink

Figs: The jewels of summer

FORT WORTH, Texas - My back yard is a festival of fecundity these steamy summer days.

Ever since I moved back to Texas from more northern climes a few years ago, I've wanted a fig tree. With the home I moved into earlier this summer, I got my wish. Three wishes, actually - three fig trees.

When I was growing up in Central Texas, fig trees were common in back yards. I loved them for the fruits' sweet, yielding pink flesh, with its tiny seedy crunch, and for the chunky, lemon-peel-laced fig preserves my mother made from them. I also liked to hide in the deep shade the trees' big, slightly raspy leaves cast in high summer, which is probably why I still enjoy the cat-musk scent of the leaves.

I took figs for granted, though, until I moved north to Ohio, to find that in cooler climes figs truly are an exotic delicacy. Ripe figs are extremely perishable, so they're not good candidates for shipping, and they must be painstakingly hand harvested besides. In my years in Cincinnati, I hardly ever saw fresh figs in supermarkets, although occasionally they would show up in a little Italian produce store I frequented. They were wickedly expensive, and you had to buy them by the case.

Tony, the store's proprietor, understood why I so yearned for them: His father, who had immigrated from Italy, was so incapable of living without figs that he had planted fig trees in defiance of the Ohio winters. Every fall, he carefully dug his fig trees' roots up, shoveled out trenches in his yard, laid the trees in them and covered the trees with earth to keep them from freezing. In spring, he excavated the trees and replanted them.

Now that I'm back in Texas, I won't take figs for granted again. And I'm a little bit amused, but also pleased, to see these old-fashioned fruits becoming newly trendy, appearing in not just desserts but in appetizers and entrees on high-ticket restaurant menus and even as the ingredient du jour in spa products and beauty preparations.

But in my own back yard, I have discovered that fig trees are not for sissies. First, there is the battle with the other creatures that like figs fully as much as I do: Let a fig hang too long on the branch and you'll likely find a big hole in the flesh where birds have pecked their fill. Then the insects move in _ honeybees, butterflies, hornets and flies, which also swarm to those figs that have fallen to the ground.

As the figs ripen, drops of sugary juice collect at the "eye" at the bottom of the fruit, through which the rosy interior flesh can be glimpsed. Picking them releases a milky, sticky sap from the stems. Between the sticky juices and the humid summer heat, I need a shower by the time I've searched out all the ripe fruit I can reach. At least I'm not allergic to the leaves and sap, as many people are, but the mosquitoes are happy to supply the itch factor.

Still, I count myself lucky to be picking these venerable fruits, beloved of Mediterranean climes, fruits that not only are mentioned in the Bible but were prized by ancient Greeks. (So prized, in fact, that Athenians coined the word sycophant _ from "sukon," fig, and "phainen," to reveal _ to describe the informers who curried favor by turning in violators of the unpopular law against exporting figs.)

And it's easy to understand why our ancestors were so attracted to these fruits _ which are technically not fruits but flowers, by the way, called multiple fruits because the seeds and flowers grow together. The reason is that figs have more sugar than almost any other fruit. Indeed, in the past, they were sometimes used as a substitute for sugar in preserving other fruits, when sugar was in short supply.

The fig, in fact, is one of the oldest fruits known to humankind and one of the earliest cultivated fruits: The earliest evidence of figs known to us today are remnants of the fruit that were found in excavations of Neolithic sites that date back at least to 5,000 B.C.

So it's not just my childhood I'm reconnecting with in my back yard these days. On these hot summer Texas evenings, as I bring the day's bounty of nectar-heavy plump figs into my air-conditioned kitchen _ there are plenty for both the birds and me, after all _ I am honoring a tradition far older than my mother's recipe for fig preserves.

The figs we see in stores are usually from California and are not the same varieties that are likely to be found in North Texas. Among the varieties grown here, the top three are Celeste, Brown Turkey and Texas Everbearing, according to Tarrant County Extension horticulturist Steve Chaney.

The Brown Turkey variety produces large, yellow-brownish figs with tinges of maroon from early June through August.

Celeste is the latest-bearing, from mid-August to first frost, producing smaller fruits with darker purple skin and deeper pink flesh.

_ The Texas Everbearing, medium in size, "produces a little bit at a time for several months," Chaney said.

When to pick: The riper a fig is when you pick it, the sweeter it will be; figs will ripen slightly after picking if they are not harvested too green, Chaney notes. As figs ripen on the tree, they change from a uniform green to brownish, yellowish or purplish, from the bottom end upward. Ripe figs should yield to gentle pressure.

"Some people like them a little bit harder; some like them a little softer," Chaney said. If you're trying to save as many figs from the birds as possible, "you're better off pulling them a few days earlier and letting them finish ripen in the house," he added.

How to store: Figs picked not quite ripe can be kept at room temperature for a day or so, but dead-ripe figs are very perishable and must be refrigerated if you want to keep them longer than a few hours. Even then, they may not last more than a day or two. Varieties with a "closed eye" (the small aperture at the bottom of the fruit) last longer than those with an "open eye."

Splits in the fruit do not necessarily mean a fig is spoiled. Sniff the fig closely; if it smells fresh instead of fermented, it's fine.

In stores, select the ripest figs you can find, but avoid any that are obviously overripe - mushy, bruised, discolored or exuding liquid.

As for keeping the birds away from the trees, "I wish I had the answer," Chaney said. "Some people have tried netting, some people have tried noisemakers," but "they're going to get to them regardless. Just keep an eye on them and harvest them when they're ready."

One of the best ways to enjoy figs is out of hand, warm from the sun or chilled from the fridge, and they are delightful halved or quartered and eaten with cheese or dry-aged ham as an appetizer, with honey-drizzled yogurt or fresh ricotta for breakfast or with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a spill of heavy cream as dessert.

But their uses in cooking are myriad, in both sweet and savory dishes. Roasting or baking intensifies their natural sweetness and concentrates the flavor, which can sometimes be a little bland, especially when the growing season has been particularly rainy, as ours has been this summer.

Natural flavor partners for figs include yogurt, mascarpone and almost any cheese, especially blue and aged cheeses such as Parmesan; nuts; cured pork, especially prosciutto and serrano ham; lemon and orange; honey or brown sugar; ginger; pears; sweet onions (in savory dishes); balsamic and other mellow vinegars; fortified wines such as port or sherry.

Some cookbooks suggest that figs be peeled, but their skin is so thin that I cannot imagine why anyone would go to that trouble.

Fresh fig quarters wrapped with prosciutto are a classic, and luxurious, appetizer, but for something a little more contemporary, I like to halve fresh figs, add a dollop of goat cheese to the cavities, top each with a Spanish Marcona almond and bake them at 350 degrees until the cheese softens and the figs are heated through, about 10 minutes. Sometimes I vary the formula by using blue cheese and pecans, which makes for an even more decadent starter.

Another sophisticated idea: Slice figs to top a sweet-savory pizza, all the rage in the hippest Italian bistros these days. Add crumbles of blue cheese, and cut up some thinly sliced prosciutto to scatter over the pizza before slipping it into a hot oven. If you like, just before serving, strew some arugula leaves over the top.