Figging Around


fig collage

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. big fig 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. ย 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.

But they make fine preserves. Like apricots and plums, figs are easy to turn into jam or preserves (preserves being chunkier than jam) since they thicken nicely without the addition of pectin.

fig basket

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.

 

Makes about three 1/2-pint jars

Homemade Fig Preserves {Confettura di Fichi}

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)

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

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.

NOTES
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.

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28 Responses to Figging Around

  1. Jamie September 4, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    Fascinating, actually. Nature works in mysterious ways and unless we stop and ask – or look for it – we never know this kind of stuff. Great post, Domenica. And love the touch of orange in your jam. Figs do pair so well with savory dishes but never thought about shoving figs inside the skin of chicken. Yum.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

      That chicken recipe sounds great for September, doesn’t it. Must try. Fig wasps be damned. xo

  2. Kathy - Panini Happy September 4, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    I made fig preserves for the first time this weekend! Slightly different recipe, but still wonderfully figgy. ๐Ÿ™‚ Yours looks beautiful!

  3. Laney (Ortensia Blu) September 4, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Love the recipe and fig ideas! And lucky you with a fig tree! But ick…sort of gross on the fig entomology…although there’s probably more than meets the eye on just about everything we eat:)

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      Laney ~ it seems like few people know about that (unsavory) detail of fig propagation. Nature is pretty incredible. And I agree. I’d take a fresh fig over most processed food any day. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Domenica Marchetti September 4, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Kathy ~ thank you, and thanks also for stopping by. I’d love to hear about your preserves. Will you be posting about them? Cheers, D

  5. elisa September 4, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    This is for you Domenica and for every fig lover!

    http://ricettacolo.com/ricette/fichi

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      Wow ~ fig fabulousness. Grazie Elisa!

  6. Adri September 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Fascinating! I had no idea of the science behind a fig. We’re going to be planting a fig tree, and I look forward to a wonderful harvest and trying your confettura.

    There is something about this time of year in Southern California. It is still hot, with lots of days in the triple digits, and yet the air is somehow different. “It just feels like Fall” my mom used to say. The heat is not as scorching, the air not as drying. This is the time I do most of my preserving. Maybe it’s because pears and very late summer peaches are my favorites. I did not grow up with preserving. I came to it quite late, but with a passion. Some of my most favorite memories of preserving are not of the kitchen, but rather of the L.A. County Fair and walking into the Home Arts building seeing literally thousands of jars, gleaming in the glass cabinets. Figs, plums, oranges, conserves, jam, jellies and marmalades. They were all there. You name it, somebody made it. And somebody won. While I’d search the shelves for my entries, hoping to find a ribbon attached, nothing could compare to the joy in the voice of a child as she squealed “Mom! Look, Mom! You won, Mom!” That’s what I think of when it’s time to bring the graniteware pot inside from the garage. Congratulations on a gorgeous confettura. I hope that when you open a jar this winter, you remember your beautiful fig tree in all of her summer glory. The wasps, on the other hand, will have faded from memory.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      What a lovely comment, Adri. Thank you. I’ll bet there were lots of wonderful entries at the LA County Fair. We didn’t do the county fair much as a family. I guess because we were usually in Italy, so no complaints! Yes, there was definitely a fall feeling in the air when I took the dog for her walk this morning. The air here is drier ~ most welcome after the humidity of recent days. The sky is blue and the cicadas are singing. In fact, it feels a bit like Michigan out there today. Up next, bread & butter pickles.

  7. Lizthechef September 4, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    My fig chutney turned out pretty well a week or so ago…http://lizthechef.com/2013/08/30/here-comes-fall-fig-chutney/

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Liz, that sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing the link. Hopping over now to check it out.

  8. laura (Tutti Dolci) September 5, 2013 at 12:47 am #

    Your preserves look delicious and are such a gorgeous color!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 9:07 am #

      Thank you Laura. I think the variety is brown turkey figs. They have dark brown/purple skins and ruby interiors, which makes for a pretty color when cooked into jam.

  9. Michelle - Majella Home Cooking September 5, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    This post brought back so many memories for me, Domenica. My grandmother used to make fig preserves for use in “cuddureddi” – pretty Sicilian jam-filled cookies prepared at Christmas. It is one of those old family heirloom recipes that my mom guards closely and that I didn’t appreciate those cookies when I was a child. What I would do to learn the craft from her now! Thanks for the link-back ๐Ÿ™‚ A domani!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 9:09 am #

      Michelle, make sure you get that recipe from your mom! I’d love to know more about them. Ci vediamo presto…

  10. acolbus September 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    I walked by some figs at Whole Foods the other day wondering how I would cook them, but looks like I’ve found my recipe. The fig preserves look absolutely yummy!

    • Domenica Marchetti September 5, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

      Thank you. I’ll probably be resorting to bought figs pretty soon myself. The harvest from my tree is getting smaller with each passing day.

  11. Chiara September 6, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    ho scoperto da poco i fichi, li avevo sempre ignorati, adesso li adoro ! Bellissima ricetta per conservarli tutto l’anno, me la segno subito ! buon we Domenica, un abbraccio !

    • Domenica Marchetti September 7, 2013 at 11:30 am #

      Chiara, sei fortunata, perche secondo me i fichi italiani sono i migliori. Grazie per il tuo commento cara. xo

  12. elisa September 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    Domenica, you might enjoy this. There is a small garden bird in Italy called Beccafico (fig-pecker), because it feeds on figs and becomes quite a chubby bird after a eating quite a few. The fish recipes called “alla Beccafico” are the ones that stuff the fish till it looks really chubby, just like the bird. Typical recipes of alla Beccafico are from Sicily. Take a look at this video.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 10, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

      Thanks for posting the video Elisa. Sweet little birds and I enjoyed learning the origin of their name. They’d better stay away from my tree, though ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. Frank Fariello September 9, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    I am SO jealous you have your own fig tree! I love figs but the ones you buy in the supermarket are really hit or miss. Nothing to compare with one you’ve picked yourself, I’m sure. Do they need a lot of sun? I try to plant one in the backyard….

    • Domenica Marchetti September 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      You’re right about store-bought figs, Frank. A lot of store-bought fruit is hit or miss, I’ve found. I have to be honest and say that my figs don’t compare to the ones you pick off the tree in Italy. They just grow so much better there. They do need a lot of sun (which is why this summer was a little off), but they also need shelter. Mines is in a corner of my yard against the garage. It’s grown exponentially over the last few years and is now producing a lot of fruit. Not as good as figs in Italy but I’ll take what I can get.

      • Frank Fariello September 14, 2013 at 9:00 am #

        Ah well, I guess I’ll have to continue living with the store bought. We live in a wooded area and the only sunny spot is already occupied by the pool. I like figs but not enough to fill that in… ;=)

  14. ciaochowlinda September 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    A really fascinating post Domenica. I had no idea about the wasps. My son pruned my fig tree really hard last year and I was worried it was a goner. But it came back stronger than ever and I have finally harvested my very first figs. Now granted, there are only three ripe ones so far, but I’m hoping the other couple of dozen on the tree will ripen before the frost. I also planted a little sapling I dug out from the main tree, but I put it in a pot and through the winter, kept it in the garage – no light, no water. Well, what do you know? It came back to life this year, and has been growing in a pot all summer – and it has two figs on it. I’m encouraged and will keep it in the garage once again this winter and haul it out next spring, when hopefully it will produce a lot more.

  15. daniel November 24, 2013 at 1:20 am #

    would you like to trade some fig tree branch cuttings? if so please email me at ediblelandscaping.sc@gmail.com I have several varieties and would be happy to trade a few 6-8 inch cuttings with you

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Fichissimo | nuovastoria - September 5, 2013

    […] might also visit Domenica Marchetti’s blog for a terrific confettura di fichi (fig jam) recipe. Authentic and addictive in one fell swoop. […]

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