Heather Arndt Anderson is a Portland, Oregon, native who is presently enjoying a respite from environmental consulting to raise a baby boy. She puts her botany degree to use, though, by growing as much food as she gathers. Here, she’ll talk about foraged food. Heather also keeps a blog, Voodoo & Sauce.
Passing through the Clinton, Colonial Heights, and Ladd’s Addition neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon’s southeast quadrant on foot, I can’t miss the green orbs lying about. They litter back alleys and unimproved roadways, sticking bits of gravel to the soles of my shoes — or perhaps to your dog or bicycle wheels, depending.
Unlike when one happens upon fruit in the middle of God and everybody (e.g., in front of someone’s house), when in alleys one has the momentary privacy to stop and glance around for wary eyes before helping oneself to the oft-wasted bounty of moraceous lovelies.
Oh, the fabled fig (Ficus caprica). Why do they languish on every tree, frittered, to unceremoniously fall to the ground with a sodden splat and become fodder for ants? Is it because people don’t know what they are, or what to do with them? Or is it (likelier, I surmise) that no one can possibly love them as wholly as the Italians?
Italian immigrants moved to Portland in great droves during the turn of the last century and settled into the temperate, Mediterranean climate quite nicely. They brought nostalgic bits of their homeland with them and planted vegetable gardens thriving with zucchini, tomatoes, fava beans, oregano, and mint. Portland’s first farmers’ market was opened in the late 1800s by the Italian Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Fig trees were put into front yards and back yards, along property lines and on corners. Fig trees were friendly. They were neighborly. And like gangbusters, they grew.
Nowadays, from mature branches hang heavy fruit, ripe for the (free) picking.
Most of the figs I see around town are, I think, the Conadria variety, with medium to large “fruit” with light green skin and sexy carmine flesh. I’m using quotation marks because figs are not actually fruits; rather, they are an inside-out cluster of flowers called a syconium. Cut one open, and you’ll see an array of tiny female flowers huddled together tightly. The fruits are relegated to the form of those nutty little seeds that crunch between your teeth when you bite into the Newton. Semantics aside, just remember to pick them when they’re tender and yield to a slight squeeze.
Other fun facts: Edible common figs (unlike caprifigs) do not require pollination (and thank goodness for that, because fig wasps are in serious trouble, but that’s another story). Figs flower twice a year — once in July(ish) on last year’s branches and again in September(ish) on this year’s branches. The sticky latex sap is a skin irritant, so don’t let any drip on you as you gently twist the tender orb from its branch. Similarly, don’t let the clear, mucilaginous drool dribble from overripe fruit into your hair. This is a real pain to get out.
But what to do with this surfeit of figgy goodness? Figs don’t travel well, and they have a propensity for succumbing quickly on a countertop. Really good, ripe ones will practically split under their own weight. They do, however, roast up like a dream. Roasting brings out the nutty, savory notes of the fig, and concentrates and caramelizes the sugars into a confection that is earthy and complex. Roasted figs freeze wonderfully, and this is my preferred method of processing and storing them.
Or in jars of brandy. That’s good, too.
Their flavor, once roasted, is similar enough to tamarind that they make a seductive chutney to enjoy with a curry (or roast pork). Fresh figs make a gorgeous jam that will doll up a plebeian cheese plate. Or for instant gratification, they look very pretty simply quartered lengthwise and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.
Fig leaves are a symbol of modesty (or of human shame), but the fruits represent prosperity. And in Portland, at least, prosper they do.
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