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Griffin to Go: Fig Paradise

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One of the first plants I put in my backyard was a brown turkey fig tree. I could hardly believe my luck: I found a beautiful plant at a nursery that was going out of business. Into the ground it went.

Surprise of surprises, the tree has grown over the years, despite my best efforts at what I call Darwinian gardening. For years, I have had a practice of planting something, watering it for a while and then leaving it on its own to live or die. Sure, I would protect the innocent during the winter when freezes could hurt it, but that was the extent of my care and attention.

Until I got laid off earlier this year. Suddenly, I not only had the time to spend more on gardening, I had a greater interest in having the plant thrive: The more figs, the less I would spend on groceries.

The effort has paid off, thanks to some green-thumbed friends of mine. In the past, I may have fought off the birds for a handful of figs. This year, despite the drought, I have brought in dozens that were so ripe I couldn’t believe the flavor.

The fig addiction runs in my family.

My dad has grown figs for years, but the climate in Louisville, Ky., isn’t conducive to the trees. So the man with one of the greenest thumbs I know does what he can to get his fair share: He plants bushes every year and tends them until they produce no more fruit.

Figs are not for everyone, I realize. Christ may have loved the sweet pear-shaped fruit — he went so far as to curse a barren tree he encountered on a particularly trying day — but the texture that makes me swoon scares off others. It’s too exotic, too sensual, too alien. All those seeds.

Yet if you have never had a fresh fig, please take the time to taste just one. Then taste another a short while later, letting the flavor and texture of each settle into your mouth, your taste memory, your being.  A fresh fig is nothing like the dried mush you find in cookies.  It’s not even that much like the dried varieties, which certainly have their uses. Who knows, you could become another addict and plant your own tree.

Several years ago, I flew to Louisville so I could drive my parents to a sister’s house in Virginia. Before we left, I grabbed several of the biggest and best figs from Dad’s backyard to take with us, jewels that he could share with the rest of the family.

Nobody would try a single one. Not even a bite.

He and I eventually devoured them all. And I still think they were the best figs I had ever tasted.

What do you like to do with figs?

They are so perfect to me that I can’t get enough of eating them out of hand.

Yet I have so many this year that I have had to use my favorite second choice, which is to stuff them with goat cheese and throw them on the grill. If I want them for an appetizer, I’ll wrap them in prosciutto first. If I want them for a dessert, I’ll drizzle honey over them after removing them from the grill. (Both of these recipes work easier with the figs on a skewer, but I’ve also grilled them individually.)

I also turned to “Fig Heaven,” a cookbook written by Marie Simmons, who must love these fruit even more than me.

Here are a couple of ideas that she offers, one for an appetizer, the other for a dessert:

Endive Leaves with Fresh Figs and Goat Cheese

2 heads Belgian endive
1 cup trimmed and diced firm ripe green figs (see Note)
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup crumbed well-chilled goat cheese (about 4 ounces)

Trim the stems and remove the cores from the endive; separate the leaves, trimming the stem as needed to separate the leaves without breaking them. You should have 16 or more large whole leaves. Place the leaves in a large bowl; add a cupful of ice and cold water to cover. Let stand while preparing the salsa.

Combine the figs, red onion, lime juice, lime zest, 1 tablespoon basil, a pinch of salt, and a grinding of black pepper. Fold to blend. Add the goat cheese and toss gently to blend. Fold the ingredients gently so the figs and cheese are not mashed together.

Drain the crisped endive leaves and blot them dry on a clean kitchen towel. Arrange them on a platter and fill each one with a spoonful of salsa. Garnish each with a piece of torn basil leaf and serve immediately.

Note: Black figs will change the color of the dish, but not alter the flavor too much.

Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings.

From “Fig Heaven” by Marie Simmons
Fresh Figs and Peaches in Wine

4 to 6 large figs, any variety, stems trimmed, halved or quartered
2 or 3 large ripe freestone peaches, peeled, cut into thick wedges
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cups slightly chilled white or red wine

Distribute the figs and peach wedges among four dessert bowls or large stemmed glasses. Sprinkle each portion of fruit with 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Splash each with about 1/2 cup of the wine, and serve at once.

Makes 4 servings.

From “Fig Heaven” by Marie Simmons

I play with the latter recipe by leaving out the sugar entirely and letting the fruit speak for itself. I sometimes use cherries instead of peaches or whatever summer fruit is handy. Sparkling wine is also wonderful with the figs, as is a chilled rosé.

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7 Responses to “Griffin to Go: Fig Paradise”

  1. Figs and goat cheese are an excellent combination. It is pretty hard to beat such a simple dish that can be light first course or a pleasant end to a summer’s meal. If the figs are a lacking true ripeness, it is an easy correction to add a drizzle of honey.

    Since figs fade quickly, I would always make fig preserves, which are much more flavorful and much cheaper than grocery story offerings. It takes a few hours, but it is worth it.

    I have very fond memories of the fig tree in at my grandparents’ home. I would crawl underneath the branches and munch on the fruits until I had no appetite for dinner. It is one of my most pleasant childhood remembrances…

  2. Tom Resing says:

    Is that a picture of the figs on your tree? I have figs on mine right now, but they don’t get nearly that dark before they fall off. Perhaps they are a different variety?

  3. Beverly Boyd says:

    I too love figs. I recently bought figs at the Farmer’s Market. They were smaller than a quarter and not nearly as good looking as yours.

    I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them besides putting them in a salad or naturally, just eating them. So, thanks for the tips.


  4. shimarella says:

    My classic fig treatment is slicing them in half, drizzling with a bit of butter, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar and broiling for a few minutes until they kind of caramelise on top. They’re good just like that with some whipped cream but I have also accessorised with dulce e leche ice-cream. Last week I added a couple of slices of Amy’s Orange Cake to the cream and figs. Yummy!

  5. Annaliese says:

    Great article, John. I could taste the figs! Do you have any tips or recipes for including figs in preserves, jams or jellies? I had a variation with peaches and figs a long time ago that was marvellous.