Many people have never had a fresh fig, since so much of this perishable crop is dried rather than shipped fresh. Fresh figs can be round, flat, oval, or elongated, with a white, green, purple, or black skin, depending on the variety. The flesh, which ranges in color from yellowish-white to a deep reddish pink, has a very delicate flavor and soft texture. This is one of the most fragile fresh fruits you'll find at your produce store and must be handled with extreme care both by the shippers and by the consumer.
Although there are some seedless varieties, most figs are full of tiny crunchy seeds that are eaten along with the flesh. The three most popular figs on the market are the saclike Breba, the flat green Kadota, and the round black Mission fig, so called because it was first cultivated by monks in California. Of these three, I think the Mission is the best of all.
The very best figs in the world, however, are the ones that are ripened right on the tree - and for that you have to grow your own or become friends with someone who does. My wife's grandfather had a fig tree in his backyard that required loving care. By the time Bette and I started dating, her grandfather was already getting on in years, and every fall, around October, I'd help him prepare the tree for winter. The tree was probably fifteen feet tall, but together we'd tie a rope near the top of its trunk, then pull on the rope until the tree was bent almost double. Then we'd lash it down and wrap the whole thing in tarpaper to protect if from the weather. In the spring we'd remove the tarpaper and untie the tree, which would gradually straighten up again as the growing season progressed. Come summer, I'd help him harvest those figs, eating quite a few myself along the way. They were sweet as honey.
Historians argue about whether the Greeks sent figs to Egypt and beyond or whether figs traveled the other way. In any event, figs are grown extensively in India and are also cultivated in Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Sicily. I may be biased, but I think that Sicilian figs are especially wonderful. In the Untied States figs are grown in many home gardens as far north as New York, but almost all the fresh figs on the market here are grown in California, with a smaller crop from Texas that is primarily sold to canneries.
California figs are cell-packed to protect the delicate flesh - that is, they're packed individually in separate compartments within cardboard or wooden boxes, then shipped by air to the rest of the country. Because they're so perishable and hard to handle, they tend to be one of the more expensive items you'll find at the produce market.
The California season is from June through September.
Avoid figs with brown or grayish spots on the skin, which indicates that the fruit has started to ferment. Because packers handle them so carefully, figs usually arrive at the market in good shape. If the fruit doesn't show signs of fermentation or damage, it will almost certainly be good. Firm fruit can be ripened at home at room temperature, but even firm fruit must be handled with great care.
Perfectly ripe figs are soft to the touch and secrete a sweet sap from the opening at the blossom end. At this stage they're extremely fragile and perishable and need to be handled very gently. Because they will quickly ferment, they need to be eaten right away. If you must store them, lay them on a paper towel, cover with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for no more than three days.
A ripe fresh fig is delicious simply eaten out of hand. You can eat the skin if you wish or nibble the flesh from the skin. In place of melon, try wrapping fig halves in prosciutto as an appetizer. Figs can also be poached with sugar, used in baking, or made into jam or preserves.
Fresh figs help retain freshness and moisture for baked goods. They help extend shelf life for cakes and baked goods without chemicals or preservatives. Figs mixed with olive oil, rosemary, and garlic make a good spread for Focaccia bread. Figs and rosemary make a delicious stuffing for pork chops, chicken and dumplings. Grilled figs on skewers basted with Brandy are simply delicious.
Other recipes from Produce Pete.