We didn't have figs trees in our Pacific NW neighborhood when I was growing up, but they were an occasional treat from Dad, who was more accustomed to these warm-weather treats. He'd spot a precious box of them at Pike Place Market and bring them home for us to share. They were so exotic, so good. It was at the university, however, in botany class, where my deeper affection for the fig began.
The fig tree beguiles. In the spring (or fall in temperate climates), when you'd normally expect flowers, itsy-bitsy fig shaped nubs will form at the leaf axils, and continue growing into full-sized figs until they reach ripeness--usually July around here. The "fruit" of the fig is modified, fleshy, flower stems fused together, with each stem's flower/s turned to the inside and hidden. The flowers are pollinated through a tiny hole at the end. The flowers, many hundreds of them, are the luscious pink flesh on the inside. Imagine a Queen Anne's Lace that is not fully unfurled, like the illustration to the left. It is easy to see how a fig could have evolved from a flowerhead like this into the form it has today.
The evolution of the fig is inextricably tied to its pollinator, the fig wasp (Pegoscapus sp.). The fig and the fig wasp have been engaged in an evolutionary slow dance for 60 million years, never changing partners. It's an extreme example of plant-pollinator interaction; the fig's pollination depends on this tiny, specialized wasp that feeds exclusively on the fig.
A fig is not just a fig, you see. That storied past, rich history, and a love-affair lasting eons seduce me into its charms.
This year we suffered the Fig Fiasco, and a redemption. We should have expected it. Talented green thumb that I am (HA!), I have planted a total of three sets of fig trees in my garden. First in a rocky berm in the front yard (died), second in big, wooden half-barrels next to said rocky berm (died), then finally in the sunny, southern exposure of our backyard, where they performed marvelously. In 2014 we had our first real crop, and the trees grew like weeds. With the goal of keeping them more shrub-like and compact for easy picking, I intervened with my pruning shears at the wrong time (Fiasco Part I). If you have a dormant season (which we seem to have less and less of each year), prune then. Otherwise, prune in the autumn after harvest and after the tiny figs for next year appear. You can prune carefully and will be able to see that you are leaving fruit on the tree for next season. Here is a good resource. If you have fig pruning tips, please share!
Part II of the Fiasco was the partial, accidental demolition of our two fig trees late this spring when a huge limb came down on them during a planned tree removal. Sigh. Now we look to others for redemption and wait for next year when our figs undoubtedly begin giving again.
Thank goodness for good people and for the fact that fig trees are so darned tenacious! After the Fiasco, my husband and I were invited to the home of a fellow gardener (and complete stranger) to pick all the figs we could get off her gorgeous, rambling tree. Two boxes of fruit later, I cooked up a delicious fig jam.
I use a lot of lemons in my baking, and I always peel the fruit first with a vegetable peeler if I don't need the peel in the recipe I'm preparing. Then I'll freeze it or otherwise preserve it for later use. This is one of those later uses. The large shards of lemon peel are a happy surprise in the preserves after they candy-up like marmalade during cooking.
The salient flavor besides fig is anís, from both the anís liqueur and the anise seed. It is a wonderful and not uncommon pairing. If you're not sure if you're an anise person, feel free play around with the proportions of orange juice concentrate and liqueur, but don't eliminate the anise altogether.
1# 12oz fresh figs, quartered
1/3 oz wide slices lemon peel (use a vegegable peeler)
1.5 c sugar
3/4 t anise seed
1 bay leaf
1T orange juice concentrate
3 T anís liqueur
In a heavy pot, combine all of the ingredients. Allow to macerate for at least one hour, up to 3 hours. Stir, and cook on medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Continue cooking and breaking up figs with a potato masher until mixture is thick and syrupy (about an hour; 220F) with fig chunks sized to your liking.
Remove the lemon half and bay leaf. Follow instructions for canning, or just jar it up for refrigerated storage. I haven't tried freezing it, but it's worth a try.
I grew up in a fruit and cheese kind of household of the Latin American / Spanish kind where preserved fruit is on heavy rotation: pasta de guayaba (guava paste), papaya en almibar (papaya chunks in heavy syrup), membrillo (quince paste), and always paired with a mild, fresh cheese. Growing up in the '70s that meant the ubiquitous Jack Cheese, but there are much better options now.
- Fig preserves with fresh cheese (cottage cheese or Mexican Queso Fresco) are good grocery store options
- Mix fig preserves into Greek yogurt (I swear by FAGE Total) and optionally top with toasted hazelnuts or almonds and orange sections.
- Serve fig preserves on toasted artisan bread with crumbled feta cheese (I like the slightly less salty, creamy, sheep's milk Bulgarian Feta, which you can find at Big John's PFI in Seattle's International District). Grocery store feta works great, and it's what I am snacking on right now (see pic).
- Make a ricotta-fig tart: combine 2c ricotta with honey to taste, pinch of kosher salt, and couple of eggs. Lightly bake a 8'-9" pastry crust, spread about a half cup of fig preserves on the bottom, top with ricotta mixture and bake until puffy on the outside and set but not too puffy) in the middle. For a little decoration, sprinkle with toasted, sliced almonds, or dollop fig preserves on top of the ricotta before baking and draw a knife through the preserves to create a marbled effect.
- Try fig preserves as a condiment to meat, like roasted pork or chicken, or even a mild sausage.
- Include fig preserves on your cheese plate, paired with soft-ripened cheeses like brie, moderately aged cheeses like manchego or goat gouda. Use your imagination. There's no right or wrong, just combinations that taste good.
- Try this easy and delicious appetizer from Northwest Edible Life for Figs with Lemon Ricotta and Mint.