Just when local tomatoes start to dwindle at the market, figs arrive in all their green and purple glory, a harbinger of autumn. Figs also have a shorter, smaller harvest in early summer, but the main event comes at the end. The season is still short, so grab these precious fruits while you can.
The fig and its tree have been embedded in the history of the world for millennia, mentioned in ancient Buddhist scriptures, Egyptian scrolls, and the Old and New Testaments. Some scholars believe the fruit consumed in the garden of Eden was a fig, not an apple.
The ancient fruit is thought to be among the first cultivated by humans. Resilient and easy to grow, fig trees come in hundreds of varieties, many of which bear edible fruit, and are now cultivated around the world, from their native western Asia and the Mediterranean to across the United States.
The most common variety in America is the mission fig, with deep purple skin and rosy pink insides. These figs were first planted in southern California by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the late 18th century, hence their name; today, California grows the majority of the country’s figs. Smyrna figs, or Brown Turkey figs, are also common in the United States, and the most common variety on the Mediterranean coast. They have skin ranging from yellow-brown to light purple, and pale pink insides. You might also find Kadota figs, which have bright yellow-green skin and bright pink flesh.
At the market, look for fresh figs with slightly cracked skins and soft, plump flesh that has a little give, as these will be perfectly ripe. If you want them to last a few days, choose ones with smooth, unbroken skins and refrigerate them. Either way, enjoy them soon, as figs are very fragile. Most cultivated ones are dried to extend their lifespans.
Luscious and honey-sweet when ripe, figs are delicious eaten raw. They pair well with other summer fruits and savory bites such as cheese and cured hams. Serve them on their own, with yogurt or cereal for breakfast, or as an addition to a cheese plate, drizzled with maple syrup or honey. They can also be cooked into jams, spreads, pies, and tarts. The latest trend? Mix them into your cocktails.
Cooking With Figs
Less is more when cooking with figs. My favorite fig recipes require just a few more steps to shine, but always focus on allowing the fruit’s flavor to come through.
The combination of sweet figs and salty cheese is unfailingly delicious in any form. Here, I use creamy blue cheese and add slivers of jamón serrano to take them over the top. They make a perfect quick-to-make tapa or hors d’oeuvre, or even a first course for dinner. I play with the presentation, arranging the ingredients one way or another, depending on how I plan to serve it.
Sautéed with late-summer plums and balsamic vinegar, figs cook into a rich, savory-sweet sauce that can accompany roast pork for a perfect introduction to fall. It can also be used as a spread on goat cheese bruschetta, or as a chutney to ease a fiery curry dish. All in all, it’s a decadent and versatile sauce to have on hand, so make a double batch and store it in the fridge or freezer for later use.
Finally, for dessert, I dip halved figs in sugar and quickly caramelize them in butter to serve over vanilla ice cream. The sugar creates a thin, crisp, sweet, and buttery crust over the warmed figs, which explode in your mouth. Fireworks may ensue.