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FIGS, FIGS AND MORE FIGS

BY ANNABEL COHEN

It's fig season -- time to sprint to the greengrocer and snap up these small, soft-skinned, pear-shaped fruits.

We're talking about fresh figs, of course. Most Australia are far more familiar with figs in the form of gooey, chewy cookie fillings, or the brown, sticky-sweet dried figs you see packed tightly in boxes or laced together with twine.


Salad with figs, watermelon, grapes and prickly pears. (Free Press photo by Chris and Marika)

But fresh and dried figs are as different as grapes and raisins. Cut open, fresh figs look positively exotic -- juicy crimson or yellow flesh packed with minuscule edible seeds.

When the fruit is fresh, the seeds are almost indistinct in texture and flavor from the flesh. When figs are dried, the skin thickens and the seeds become grainy and almost crunchy.

There's really nothing exotic about figs. They've been around practically forever and are one of the oldest fruits mentioned in literature.

Cleopatra hid the poisonous asp she used to end her life in a basket of fresh figs. The Bible says Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their bodies after the apple incident in Eden. Other Old and New Testament references to this delicacy abound.

If you've never eaten a fresh fig, you're not alone. A lickety-split season -- late June through mid-August and sporadically through the fall -- plus difficulty in transporting figs made this delicate, highly perishable fruit hard to find in our neck of the woods.

Improved shipping techniques, however, and a changing ethnic climate are transforming fresh figs into a sought-after commodity.

Mediterranean heritage

Figs are native to Asia Minor and specifically to Turkey and the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. The dark-skinned Smyrna fig was introduced into Mexico by the Spanish in the mid-16th Century.

Franciscan monks brought figs to San Diego area missions in the late 1700s. The crop spread to various missions along California's coast and produced the famous dark-purple Mission or black Mission fig. Most figs consumed in the United States still come from California.

There are hundreds of fig varieties spread all over the world, especially in countried with warm weather.

Buying and serving figs

Figs don't ripen once picked, so it's important that they be at their peak when harvested. Depending on availability, figs can sell for as much as $1 a fruit. In season, the price should drop considerably. All depends on the harvest, which this summer is expected to be down because of weather problems in California, local distributors say.

The fruits are extremely fragile, and the skin bruises and tears easily. Choose figs when they're plump and soft to the touch. Eat them within a day or two of purchase.

Since the fruit is shipped ripe, it's common, and acceptable, for the base of the fig to tear slightly or become moist and skin around the stem to be slightly shriveled.

Fresh figs are almost always best served simply. Like kiwi, their most interesting and stunning feature is how they look when cut. Figs are seldom chopped or sliced. It's the beauty of the halved or quartered fig that's most appealing. And while some recipes insist figs be peeled, most don't require it because the skin is quite thin.

Europeans serve fresh figs at room temperature or warm, never chilled. Traditional accompaniments include cheese, nuts or smoked meats as a first course. When eaten as part of a dessert, a natural partner is cream, whipped, sweetened and sometimes spiked with a fruity liqueur.

You'll find recipes for fresh figs mostly in Mediterranean cookbooks. Since their mild flavor is compatible with so many foods, recipes run the gamut from figs served alone with a fresh custard to figs served with spicy lamb or chicken. Any way you eat them, you'll be participating in a food custom of biblical proportions.


figs

STUFFED FIGS

1/2 cup pine nuts

8 ounces cream cheese, softened; or reduced-fat or nonfat cream cheese, if desired

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh figs, washed, stems removed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and bake 8-12 minutes until the nuts are lightly toasted. Remove them from the oven and set them aside to cool.

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, cooled pine nuts, orange zest and pepper, mixing until smooth.

Slice each fig in half lengthwise. Press about a tablespoon of the cream cheese mixture into the cut side of each fig half.

Makes 20 stuffed figs; one per serving.

89 calories (61% from fat), 6 grams fat (3 grams sat. fat), 8 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 34 mg sodium, 12 mg cholesterol, 25 mg calcium, 1 grams fiber.


FIGS AND PROSCIUTTO

8 ripe, fresh figs

16 paper-thin slices prosciutto (Prosciutto di Parma is the best)

Lemon or lime wedges

Roll or fold the prosciutto slices and arrange them on a serving plate. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to serve. Just before serving, slice the figs lengthwise. Arrange the figs and lemon wedges around or over the prosciutto.

Makes 16 appetizer servings.

46 calories (11% from fat), 1 gram fat (0 grams sat. fat), 9 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 86 mg sodium, 4 mg cholesterol, 17 mg calcium, 2 grams fiber.


MIXED GREEN SALAD WITH FIGS, GORGONZOLA AND PECANS

Mustard vinaigrette

3 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste

1/2 cup olive oil (not extra-virgin)

Salad

1/2 cup chopped pecans (or favorite nut)

10 cups mixed baby field greens or favorite greens

1/4 cup thinly sliced white, yellow or red onion

16 fresh figs, washed, stems removed

4 ounces Gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, honey and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking continuously; set the dressing aside.

Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and bake for 8-12 minutes until the nuts are lightly toasted. Remove and set them aside to cool.

Arrange the greens on a serving plate or 8 individual salad plates. Arrange the onion over the greens. Halve the figs lengthwise and arrange them over the greens. Sprinkle the cheese, chopped parsley and nuts over the salad. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of vinaigrette over the salad and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

330 calories (62% from fat), 23 grams fat (5 grams sat. fat), 29 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams protein, 232 mg sodium, 11 mg cholesterol, 144 mg calcium, 6 grams fiber.


CHICKEN WITH FIGS

1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

8 large, boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), washed, patted dry

16 fresh figs

2 bay leaves

16 whole cloves garlic, peeled, ends removed

2 cups sliced yellow onion

2 cups dry red wine

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a shallow dish or pie plate, combine the flour, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin and lemon zest.

Dredge the chicken in the flour mixture. Arrange the seasoned chicken breasts in a large baking dish. Distribute the figs, bay leaves and whole peeled garlic cloves on and between the chicken breasts.

Arrange the onion slices over the chicken. Pour the wine over the onions. Cover the dish with foil and bake about 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the lemon juice and parsley and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

345 calories (12% from fat), 5 grams fat (1 grams sat. fat), 40 grams carbohydrate, 37 grams protein, 386 mg sodium, 96 mg cholesterol, 95 mg calcium, 7 grams fiber.


BAKED FIGS

1/2 teaspoon shortening

1/2 cup sugar

16 fresh figs

1 cup water with a few drops of vanilla extract, for dipping the figs

Zabaglione sauce, optional (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

With the shortening, lightly grease a square baking dish that will hold all of the figs upright and close together.

Place the sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

Dip the figs, one at a time, in the vanilla water, then roll each one in the sugar. Place them, standing up, in the baking dish.

Bake, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved and the juice from the figs makes a light sauce.

Remove the figs from the oven. Cool slightly, then chill. Serve with about 1/4 cup of zabaglione, if desired.

Makes eight 2-fig portions; analysis without sauce.

143 calories (0% from fat), 0 grams fat (0 grams sat. fat), 37 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram protein, 1 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol, 45 mg calcium, 4 grams fiber.


ZABAGLIONE

8 egg yolks (reserve whites for another use)

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup Marsala, Madeira or sherry wine

In the top half of a large double boiler over simmering water, combine the egg yolks, sugar and wine. Whisk the mixture constantly until it is creamy, thickened and about doubled in volume, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Serve warm or chilled as a sauce for fresh figs or berries, whisking once again before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

149 calories (30% from fat), 5 grams fat (2 grams sat. fat), 20 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams protein, 63 mg sodium, 212 mg cholesterol, 25 mg calcium, 0 grams fiber.


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