Growing up in North Dakota, my only interaction with figs was at my grandmother’s house. She made amazing fig pinwheels, a silver dollar-sized treat with a layer of fig compote swirled up tight. They were immensely better than the Fig Newton cookies passed out at school or friends’ houses. I ate my grandmother’s fig pinwheels by the fistful; buttery and sweet, the seeds crunched in my teeth softly with each bite.
I still love those pinwheel cookies, made with dried figs. But the world of fresh figs is just too seductive to ignore. Early this summer, I found myself at Full Belly Farm in Northern California’s Capay Valley aboard a Kubota tractor whizzing through the fields.
Among many other crops, the farmers at Full Belly cultivate four varieties of figs: Mission, Brown Turkey, Kadota, and Adriatic. The tractor stopped every so often for us to hop out, searching for ripe figs to try.
A ripe fig is soft and heavy, and it easily separates from the tree when lifted from its drooping position. It will break open effortlessly, revealing a pink center rimmed by white and filled with tiny seeds.
Sniffing the fig’s delicately sweet aroma just before eating it is a pure and simple joy. It’s no wonder figs have been a luxurious staple since biblical times; it’s even been said they were Cleopatra’s favorite food.
In the U.S., fig trees are mainly cultivated in a U-shaped pattern across the country. The U starts in southern Washington and sweeps down along the West Coast through Oregon and California, then across the nation to the East Coast and up through North Carolina.
Common varieties include the four mentioned above, along with Celeste and Calimyrna. But more than 200 varieties are grown in America alone. Outside of the Mission variety, which has a deep purple color when ripe, many figs aren’t labeled by variety when sold in grocery stores. Ripe figs can be dark purple, green, gold, or even white.
Fig trees can yield two harvests in a single summer — one each in June and September. So don’t be surprised if you see figs intermittently throughout the summer at grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
Look for fruit that is soft but not mushy to the point of falling apart. Stretch their shelf life by storing them in the fridge.
The entire fruit is edible, but some people prefer not to eat the skins, instead just scooping out the tender centers.
Figs lend themselves to both sweet and salty combinations. For example, figs are often paired with salty goat cheese, a drizzle of honey, and a quick grind of the pepper grinder. Or they’re wrapped in crisp bacon, grilled, and drizzled with a balsamic-vinegar glaze.
But figs should also be paired with frangipane in tarts, strawberries in jams, and cardamom in cookies. They should be tossed in arugula salads with crumbles of pungent blue cheese, sliced and draped over roast pork loin, or even grilled with pears and endive and layered with a soft cheese on flatbread.
Of course, nothing quite beats just slicing and devouring fresh figs, preferably while relaxing in the sun, with a glass of something cold to wash them down.
Based in Eugene, Oregon, Jackie Varriano is a writer who loves tackling kitchen projects big and small. Keep up with her at SeeJackWrite.
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