When it comes to fruit, what could be more impossibly exotic, unreservedly luscious, and yes, even as downright sexy as a fig? Native to the Middle East and western Asia — although currently just as popular, if not more so, in the Mediterranean — the intensely sweet and juicy fig has been around since ancient times (you know, that whole Garden of Eden thing). In fact, it was one of the very first plants cultivated by humans, predating barley, legumes, and even wheat!
There are five well-known cultivars of figs, including the copper-colored Brown Turkey, the moist, egg-sized Celeste, the golden, nutty-flavored Calimyrna, the creamy, seedless Kadota, and the deeply purple Mission fig. (There’s even Mission Fig trees growing in Brooklyn in the last weeks in August and early September.)
Not that you need to live in the Middle East, the Mediterranean or even Brooklyn for a chance to try velvety, newly picked figs. In fact, now that the season is in full swing, figs are currently popping up on restaurant menus all over the city. So indulge in a Black Mission Martini cocktail at Marc Forgione’s eponymous Tribeca eatery, or try them in a Salad with Arugula, Asiago and Speck at Andrew Camellini’s Locanda Verde. And you can literally make a meal out of figs at the appropriately named Fig & Olive, from a Manchego, Fig and Marcona Almond Crostini and a Cheese Platter with Fig Jam, to a fig-glazed Mediterranean Branzino, and a Fig and Chicken Tajine. Ready for dessert? There are five different fig-based flavors on offer at the Lower East Side’s Il Labatorio del Gelato (Dried Black Mission, Dried Turkish, Fresh White, Fresh black and Fresh Brown Turkey), and two unique varieties of pie (Plum Fig and Honey Fig) at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus!
Or would you rather shop for your own figs at the Greenmarket? Remember that since they’re highly perishable, they should only be purchased a day or two in advance of when you plan on eating them. Look for figs with a rich, deep color, that are plump and tender, but not mushy. Because figs are so fragile, you can forgive a few wrinkles or even splits, as long as they’re not weeping or leaking, or have a sour, wine-like smell. A fresh fig should have a mildly sweet fragrance… anything else is a surefire indicator that they’re already spoiled. You can store figs on the counter for up to two days (but no longer), for maximum flavor. In a pinch, they can be kept in the fridge or even freezer to prolong their freshness, but keep in mind that it will severely detract from the full flavor of the fruit. (Try snacking on frozen figs all year long.)
Before working with figs, gently wash them under cool water, remove the stem and pat dry. At the height of the season, figs are pretty incredible just eaten as is, or paired with a number of complementary ingredients. For example, they play particularly well with any type of nut or aged cheese, fortified wine or dark spirit, honey or warm spices (nutmeg or cinnamon), olive oil or balsamic vinegar, and salty, cured meats.
Try stuffing figs with Blue or Goat Cheese, wrapping them in Prosciutto or Bacon, and baking them in the oven for an awesome appetizer. Quarter them and add to a Fennel, Arugula and Citrus Salad, or use as a topping for a sweet and savory Pizza. Figs can be cooked into Oatmeal, chopped into a Muffin or Cookie Dough, or cooked down with Red Wine or Balsamic Vinegar as the ultimate topping for Yogurt or Ice Cream. Stewed down with Thyme and Caramelized Onions, figs also make an excellent all-purpose Chutney or even Barbecue Sauce; the perfect accompaniment to cheesy Grilled Sandwiches or Roasted Meats. And you can never go wrong with a heady, fig-based cocktail… muddle them into Mojitos, freeze and blend them into Margaritas, or macerate them in Red or White Wine for an amazing end-of-summer Sangria!
Restaurant Marc Forgione
134 Reade Street, btwn. Hudson & Greenwich Sts.
377 Greenwich Street, btwn. Moore & Franklin Sts.
Fig & Olive
10 E 52nd Street, btwn. 5th & Madison Aves.
Il Labatorio del Gelato
188 Ludlow Street, btwn. Houston & Stanton Sts.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
439 3rd Avenue, btwn. 6th & 7th Aves.