The Forbidden Fruit

February 11, 2014

When I was a kid, the end of summer meant three things, pressing grapes with my grandfather to make wine, canning the garden’s tomatoes with my mother…both chores we hated…and picking the figs from my grandfather’s tree…a job we adored. We waited greedily all summer for the succulent fruit of the majestic fig tree that took up most of our city yard, a tree that was lovingly cared for and nurtured by my grandfather’s skilled hands. Our family joke was that he loved that tree and its sexy fruit as much as he loved his family…maybe more. He loved figs, everything about them…and fostered that same love in me. I could barely wait for the first fruit to ripen. My patient grandfather would gently cup the bottom-heavy fruit in his hands and hold me at bay until they were just right. To this day, I can hardly wait until the fruit is ripe! I remain impatient to savor the first bite of the first figs of the season.

The fig tree is believed to have its origins in the Mediterranean, its fruit highly prized in both Greece and Italy, for its flavor, nutrition and medicinal properties. The fig was said to give strength and even eternal life and to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

The Bible tells us that Eve seduced Adam into eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and they were banished from Eden. Since childhood, we have seen images of Eve, the serpent and an apple. Outcast, Adam and Eve were ashamed and wanted to cover their nakedness. They used fig leaves. Italian legend holds that the forbidden fruit was in fact, a fig, that lusty, sensuous fruit of fruits.

The Greeks believed that the fig was a gift from Demeter and was made sacred to Dionysus. In Rome, it was the fruit of sexual desire, symbolized by Priapus, a satyr. In the Far East, the fig tree is known as the Tree of Knowledge and legend holds that Buddha meditated and received enlightenment in one day under the branches of a fig tree.

The truth is that the fig is not actually a fruit, but rather a fleshy receptacle containing a large number of brittle seeds or achenes, that are the actual fruit. As food, figs were eaten fresh, dried or roasted and used as a sweetener. In fact, figs were used as a sweetening ingredient well before sugar was ever known. Introduced to Europe by the Greeks and Romans, figs were brought to America by Spanish missionaries, after whom ‘mission figs’ are named.

With over 150 varieties of figs available around the world, varying in color from white to green, brown, red, purple and black, the most common commercial varieties are the black fig (very sweet and dry, not as perishable as others), green fig (thin skinned and very juicy) and the purple fig (the juiciest, sweetest and most perishable of all).

Figs are more than just sweet and sensual, though. They are highly valued in many cultures for their health benefits. Loved for their soft texture and sweet taste, figs have a mineral content that rivals human milk. They are a rich source of vitamins A and B, calcium, iron, folic acid, phosphorus, manganese, potassium and fiber. Because the sugar in figs is largely glucose, the sugar in them is the most nutritive of all fruit because the human body can assimilate and use it more easily than other sugars like fructose and sucrose. And their concentrated content of vitamins B1 and B2, which are essential to intestinal regulation cause the fig to have a similar function in your body to whole cereal grains. No wonder ancient Romans believed that eating figs would make them live forever!

Only one piece of bad news with figs. They have the shortest lifespan of any fruit on the market, even berries. So once they are harvested, they last only about a week. The result of that about 90% of the world’s fig harvest is dried. And while the dried fruit is delicious, the flavor is quite different from the fresh fruit. It’s sweeter, more intense, with a chewy texture. It takes six pounds of fresh figs to make two pounds of dried. Wow!

So when you can; when you see fresh figs; whether on a neighbor’s tree or in the market, grab them (ask the neighbor’s permission or pick late at night) and eat them fresh. There is nothing like a fresh fig. There is nothing like the juicy, soft texture and sweetness. It’s enough to make you swoon with pleasure. Choose figs without blemishes that give slightly, but are not mushy. And store them in the fridge, in a loosely sealed container with a paper towel on the bottom so they don’t rot. But don’t worry; you’ll devour them long before they can spoil.

Most of us think of figs as just being eaten out of hand or served with thinly sliced prosciutto or dollops of mascarpone. But figs are more than that. Their sexy texture and sweet flavor lend them to so many creative uses. I love them in salads, as desserts, in main courses; they love to be combined with strong savory flavors, so have some fun.

But I have to go. My neighbor, Mike has a fig tree and it’s just about that time…

Figs with Soy Yogurt and Peppered ‘Honey’
A new twist on a classic starter that pairs figs with goat cheese and honey.

Makes 3-4 servings

_ cup honey-flavored brown rice syrup
_ tsp cracked black pepper
12 figs
1 container plain, unsweetened soy yogurt

Combine syrup with pepper and whisk to combine.

Starting at the stem, cut each fig into quarters, stopping about _-inch from the bottom to leave the base intact. Gently spread the figs open. Spoon a hearty tablespoon of soy yogurt into the center of each fig.

Arrange figs on a platter and drizzle generously with peppered ‘honey.’

Fig and Arugula Salad
An old Italian saying says you can’t enjoy the sweet without the bitter. In this salad, the bitter arugula makes the figs so much sweeter.

Makes about 4-5 servings

_ cup ruby port
_ cup dry red wine
4 dried mission figs
_ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
_ teaspoon garlic powder
_ teaspoon cracked black pepper
_-3/4 teaspoon sea salt
Fresh lemon juice

6-8 fresh figs, halved
1 small red onion, sliced into very thin half moons
1 small fennel bulb, halved, very thinly sliced, fronds removed
4-5 cups baby arugula, rinsed and dried well

Place the port, red wine and figs in a saucepan over low heat. Cook, uncovered until figs are quite soft and wine has reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and puree figs and wine until smooth.

Place pureed figs, olive and hazelnut oils, balsamic vinegar, garlic powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Slowly add a small amount of lemon juice, whisking, until you can just taste it. Adjust seasonings to your taste.

To assemble the salad, combine red onion, fennel and baby arugula in a mixing bowl. Spoon enough dressing over it to just coat the leaves. Toss well. Arrange on a platter with figs arranged on top of salad mixture and drizzle with a little more dressing. Serve any additional dressing on the side.

Fettuccine with Figs and Rosemary
I love this pasta dish. It combines two of my favorite foods: pasta and figs to create the perfect dinner.

Makes 6-7 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
Sea salt
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
_ cup dry white wine
_ pound ripe, fresh figs, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
Grated zest of 1 fresh lemon
4-5 sprigs fresh flatleaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Juice of _ lemon
1 pound fettuccine
2-3 teaspoons whole wheat bread crumbs

Place about 3 tablespoons of oil, onion and garlic in a deep skillet over medium heat. When the onion sizzles, add a pinch of salt and sauté until onions are translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in rosemary and wine and stir well. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Gently add figs to the mixture, season to taste with salt and add lemon zest. Cook, uncovered, until figs are soft and wine has deglazed a bit, about 7 minutes. Turn off heat and stir in parsley and lemon juice, taking care not to smash the figs.

While the sauce cooks, bring a large pot of water to a boil with a generous pinch of salt. Add a drizzle of olive oil and stir in pasta. Cook al dente, about 9 minutes. Drain well, but do not rinse.

Toss pasta gently with sauce and bread crumbs. Serve immediately. Makes 5-6 servings.

Belgian Endive with Fig and Black Olive Vinaigrette
I love this salad. There is nothing more to say, really.

Makes 3-4 servings
1 ounce fig preserves
3 teaspoons red wine vinegar
4 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons very finely chopped kalamata olives
Sea salt
Cracked black pepper
1 small red onion, very thin half moon slices
3 Belgian endive, bottoms trimmed, leaves removed and left whole

Make the dressing. Warm the fig preserves with the wine vinegar, oil and mustard in small saucepan over low heat for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and olives with salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool completely before dressing the salad. You can even put it in the fridge to bring down the temperature.

Arrange onion slices and endive leaves on a platter and spoon dressing over top to serve.

Fresh Fig Tart with Rosemary-Scented Cornmeal Crust
There is nothing better than a fig tart…nothing.

Makes 8-10 servings

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup semolina flour
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/3 cup avocado oil
Cold water

2 pounds fresh figs, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons red currant preserves
4 tablespoons honey-flavored brown rice syrup
2 teaspoons grated fresh lemon zest
Sea salt

Preheat oven to 350o and lightly oil a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, (taking care to oil all the crevices and the rim inside where the bottom fits).

Combine flours and cornmeal with a pinch of salt and rosemary. Mix well. Using a fork, cut in oil to create the texture of wet sand. Slowly add water until the crust gathers and just comes together. Knead 3-4 times. Roll crust out between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a disk that is about an inch larger than the tart pan. Fit the crust into the tart pan without stretching. Cut away excess so the crust is flush with the rim of the pan. Pierce in several places with a fork and bake for 12 minutes.

While the crust cooks, prepare the filling. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and cook until the figs are soft and the mixture is thick, about 15 minutes.

Spoon fig mixture evenly into partially baked crust and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing. Makes 6-8 servings.

Figs and Dried Cherries in Vanilla Syrup with Pistachios
I make this dessert when figs are at their absolute freshest. Simple and elegant it allows the figs to shine.

Makes 4-5 servings

_ cup fresh orange juice
_ cup brown rice syrup
_ cup honey-flavored brown rice syrup
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
_ cup unsweetened dried cherries
Sea salt
12 fresh figs
_ cup unsweetened soy yogurt
3-4 tablespoons lightly toasted, chopped pistachios (unsalted)

Place the orange juice, rice syrups, vanilla bean and cherries in a saucepan over medium heat.

When the mixture boils, add a pinch of salt and cook, uncovered and stirring frequently, until the cherries are soft and the mixture has naturally thickened, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.

Prepare the figs. Starting at the stem, cut each fig into quarters, stopping about _-inch from the bottom to leave the base intact. Arrange figs on a platter. Spoon cherry mixture generously over figs. Dollop with soy yogurt and sprinkle with pistachios.