This is the second year that my fig tree has yielded a generous crop. For awhile I was a bit worried. The first fruits appeared early in spring, but then they kind of sat around on their stems, hard and green, for most of the summer. A number of them were deformed doubles ~ the effect, I learned, of interrupted growth due to too much rain and not enough heat and sun earlier in the season.
I’ve learned some other interesting facts about figs in recent days, thanks to a lively thread on my Facebook page. First, figs are not technically a fruit at all, but rather more like an inverted flower. Here’s how one Facebook friend explained it:
“They are not an expansion of a fertilized ovary (definition of a fruit). Instead, they are an expansion of a disk (the pedicel), upon which sits hundreds of tiny flowers. That disk expands and wraps around the tiny flowers as it grows. It almost completely encloses the flowers; all that is left is a very tiny hole at the ‘bottom’ of the fig (what is actually the ‘top’ of the pseudo-fruit). When you bite into a fig, those little fibrous things inside are flowers, or at least what’s left of the flowers.”
Even more intriguing (and slightly disturbing) is the way fig plants are pollinated ~ by tiny wasps that lay eggs inside the (non-edible) male figs and that deposit pollen by burrowing inside the (edible) female figs). “Think of the wasp as a tenant, and the fig plant as a landlord who takes payment in the form of pollen,” says this post on How Stuff Works. Female wasps eventually end up trapped inside the ripening fruit, where they are digested by enzymes in the fig. It’s a crazy, kind of gross, kind of fascinating symbiotic relationship, one that has persisted for millions of years.
I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a wasp inside a fig. Maybe I just scarf them down too quickly. At any rate, I am grateful to those tiny wasps because eventually all those hard little figs on my tree did fatten up and turn ripe, and, you could say, things have come to fruition. I have lots of figs. A few friends have grumbled that their fig trees aren’t producing much fruit this year. To them I say: Be patient. It took my (formerly) little tree a good three or four years to get going and produce fruit of any quantity. Also, by all accounts, this just hasn’t been a great year for figs in the mid-Atlantic. Too much rain, not enough sun. The fruits (that aren’t fruit) on my tree aren’t as sweet or juicy this year as they were last year.
There are plenty of other ways to use September figs, either raw or cooked. For breakfast I quarter a couple of ripe ones and put them on my yogurt, then top with granola and a drizzle of honey. I put up one jar of “fichi sciroppati,” whole figs poached in syrup, which I have yet to taste (I’m giving them a few weeks to cure). Folks on Facebook chimed in with some great ideas for figs, so I wanted to pass on a few:
* quartered, with a cup of Earl Grey tea
* with prosciutto
* mashed with garlic and lemon juice for stuffing chicken breasts
* fig focaccia
* with goat cheese and mint
* over ice cream
* churned into ice cream or sorbet
* homemade fig newtons
* in a crostata
Here’s an especially useful tip that I learned the other day from my friend Cathy, the preserving maven Mrs Wheelbarrow: Before cooking figs to make preserves, put them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let sit for 10 minutes and then drain. This, she says, dislodges any dirt on the skin and kills any tiny bugs that might still be residing inside. I admit ~ I did not do this with the figs I turned into preserves last week (though I did wash them), but it strikes me as sound advice ~ in case there are any unwanted “tenants” left on the premises.
If you have a favorite way with figs, please feel free to share it in the comments section below.
EVENTS UPDATE: I’m continuing to add events to my Glorious Vegetables of Italy book tour. Please be sure to check the Events calendar from time to time to see if I’ll be in your area. I’d love to meet you. THIS SATURDAY, Sept. 7, 1 p.m.-2:20 p.m., I’ll be passing out samples and signing books at Salt & Sundry, in Union Market in D.C.
Finely chopped orange and lemon zest add a bright note to these sweet preserves. The recipe is simple, as it requires no pectin and no peeling of the fruit. Stir the preserves into yogurt, use them as a filling for a crostata (tart), or ~ for a savory twist ~ brush over pork or chicken for grilling. (Copyright 2013 Domenica Marchetti)
- 2 pounds ripe figs, washed (see NOTES)
- 2 cups sugar
- Freshly squeezed juice and finely minced zest of 1 small orange
- Freshly squeezed juice and finely minced zest of 1 lemon
Cut the tops of the stems off the figs and quarter them lengthwise. Place them in a heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the sugar, then pour the orange and lemon juice over figs. Sprinkle the zest on top. Gently mix everything together with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon and let the figs macerate for 30 minutes or up to several hours.
Have ready 3 half-pint sterilized jars and their rings and lids. Place 2 or 3 small bowls or plates in the freezer (you will use these to test the jelling point of the preserves).
Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium and cook at a lively simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and turned a couple of shades darker. Remove one of the small bowls or plates from the freezer and spoon a small amount of jam onto it. Return the plate to the freezer for 2 minutes. To test if the preserves are done, nudge the mound gently with your finger; it should wrinkle slightly and feel thick. Tilt the plate. The preserves should move sluggishly; if the mixture seems runny, it is not quite ready and you should continue to cook it for another couple of minutes before testing once more. (If you're testing with a candy thermometer, it should read 220 degrees F.)
Ladle the hot preserves into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims clean if necessary with a clean, damp cloth, and screw the lids on the jars. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and set them upright on a clean kitchen towel. Within a couple of minutes you should hear the jar lids "ping" signifying that they have sealed properly (see NOTES). Let the jars cool to room temperature before storing in a cool, dark place. They will keep for up to a year.
My friend Cathy recommends prepping the figs by putting them in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Let them sit for 10 minutes; drain and proceed with the recipe. Otherwise, carefully but thoroughly wash them.
If a jar has failed to seal properly, store it in the refrigerator and use within a month.