One of the high points of summer for me is when figs are ripe–eat them fresh, ripe from the tree early in the morning while they are still cool from nighttime, or in the heat of the afternoon when they are fragrant and warm from the afternoon sunshine. Absolutely luscious! They never even make it into the house. Should the crop be so plentiful that they do make it into the house, then get out the prosciutto–fresh figs are even better than melon with that lovely ham! Or, some good cheese–goat cheese, or Gorgonzola, or other blue, or a sheep’s milk cheese like Etorki or aged Manchego They are never better than when you can pick them truly tree-ripened.
Too many times, figs are sold unripe, mostly because they are very perishable and delicate when at peak ripeness. Another reason figs are frequently picked before peak ripeness is the competition: birds, squirrels, bees, wasps, and ants–all those critters have an eye for the perfectly ripe fig! If you want to eat them ripe from the tree you have to be willing to share because unfortunately, figs do not ripen after they are picked–pick a green fig and you’ll always have a tasteless fruit that will leave you wondering why anyone would want to eat them, much less get excited about them.
It’s really hard to describe the taste of a fresh, ripe fig–it’s certainly much different from dried ones, and a world away from Fig Newtons. I think that a ripe, fresh fig has some peach and berry flavors–it will vary somewhat with the variety of fig, but still—it’s not likely to be what you’d expect from eating dried ones.
So how do you tell if a fig is ripe? They should be soft–but please be gentle when you press on them. Really, you can tell if they are going to be soft by looking at the color (you do need to know the color of the variety when ripe). The Brown Turkey figs first turn yellowish-green–they will likely be just starting to soften then, but still do not have much flavor yet. As they ripen more they begin to turn a lovely rosy brown–but wait! They’re not ready to eat yet.
Figs hang in a drooping way from the tree (you can see how the stem ends are curved in the photograph above). When ripe they should separate easily from the tree when you lift them up against that curve. If they don’t they are not ripe!
For best flavor, they should begin to show some tiny surface fissures in the skin (not deep cracks) almost like crazing on pottery glaze, and the small round area at the blossom end should have started to open or to show a split. On some figs you may actually see a drop of clear liquid there.
To find ripe figs if you don’t have your own tree, you need to head to the farmers’ market. The common fig here is the Brown Turkey which is in season approximately from July to September. I’ve just harvested several pounds of figs–but the tree still has lots of small green figs that should ripen in a second flush in a few weeks.
Should you have an excess of fresh figs, you should use some with duck–the recipe is complicated, but the result is unforgettable–worth the effort. What else can you do with fresh figs? Fig ice cream, poach some and serve with pound cake or vanilla ice cream, fresh fruit tart….but best of all, just eat them unadorned.
If you find you have some that are not quite what you’d like to eat out-of-hand, then you can make a lovely dessert by poaching them in Campari. This is a recipe that I found in Jacques Pepin’s The Shortcut Cook (page 248) for which I’ll give you the basics here:
Poached Fresh Figs with Campari
- 1 cup fruity white wine
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- about 20 small, ripe figs
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons Campari
- Combine wine, sugar and lime juice and bring to a boil.
- Add figs, cover, and simmer for about 4 to 5 minutes. Figs should be tender when tested with the tip of a knife, but should not burst open.
- Transfer to a bowl with slotted spoon.
- Reduce the liquid in the saucepan to 1 cup if there is more than this.
- Add cornstarch slurry and bring to a boil to thicken.
- Cool sauce to room temperature then stir in the Campari and pour over figs.
These are delightful served over pound cake with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche, or spooned over good vanilla ice cream. (I like to add just a hint of cardamom to this poaching liquid.)
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