I once ate an entire kilo of figs while sitting on an outdoor staircase in Montmartre in Paris. It was late summer and the open-air markets were overflowing with ripe, gorgeous fruit. When fruit is perfect, I find it totally irresistible.
I was in Paris at that time because I had been doing a short “stagiaire” (apprenticeship) at Rostang, a Michelin two-star restaurant. I realized that the Parisians revere and respect fruit as much as I do, because the last dish that every diner at the restaurant received was a bowl of cherries. The cherries were from Limousin, an area known for that fruit and they arrived at the kitchen directly from the orchard in baskets. We would wash them and deliver them to the table at the end of the meal, after dessert and coffee. (Very few fancy restaurants in the U.S. would ever have the nerve to do anything this simple and lovely. Diners here almost always receive a platter of complicated petits fours at the end of a meal, which I, for one, am always too full to look at, let alone eat.) In any case, those cherries were so dark and plump and bursting with juicy cherry flavor, the customers ooh-la-la-ed themselves into a fruit ecstasy, leaving the restaurant in a very happy state.
But back to the figs. Figs are what I would call a special fruit. For me, along with olives, they symbolize the Mediterranean. If you love figs, you are probably pretty passionate about them. They’re absolutely perfect if you eat them right out of their little baskets, like I did in Paris, or better yet, directly from the tree. My grandma, who grew up on a farm in southern Italy, used to say that purple figs were donkey food – she and her family would only eat white figs! Personally, I’ll eat any variety of fig and enjoy it as long as it’s ripe. The soft, squishy texture of ripe figs along with the pleasant, slight crunch of their small seeds adds to the uniqueness of the fruit. There are several varieties of figs, distinguishable by color: purple, brown, green, white- each one a little different from the next.
In addition to eating them, I do, of course, cook and bake with figs – I really can’t get enough of them – but I tend to treat them simply and honestly and let the inherent flavor and texture speak for themselves. I think that if you are excited about an ingredient, you treat it with respect and create dishes that highlight it, rather than use it in a way that masks its uniqueness. In late summer and early fall, figs are pretty plentiful in markets in the northeast (although they never seem to be cheap). While occasionally blurring the lines between sweet and savory, or creating a dish that has a balance of those elements, figs are a good ingredient choice since they are delicious when complemented by honey, brandy, citrus, vanilla, almonds, walnuts or chocolate. But they also pair well with savory ingredients like cured or air-dried meats, balsamic vinegar, cheese, chicken and duck, or wild game.
Since figs have a slight strawberry-ness to them, the combination of strawberry and fig is very nice. Try serving a slice of toasted or grilled plain poundcake with a little mixture of sliced figs and strawberries. Toss the fruit with a little vanilla sugar and let it macerate for few minutes beforehand. A spoonful of mascarpone or crème fraiche is perfect with this. I also enjoy the combination of figs and espresso- I often serve espresso gelato with honey-roasted figs.
I make a crostata (the Italian version of tart or pie) with a walnut crust topped with fresh purple figs drizzled with honey, the pinkish interiors making a lovely pattern- it’s very simple and delicious. If I have a surplus of figs, I like to make preserves. Green figs are perfect for this, with orange or lemon added. I cut the figs in half and weigh them, then add half that weight of sugar. I add a couple of oranges or lemons, quartered. I put everything in a large heavy pot and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture has thickened to a nice preserve consistency. I realize I am very haphazard about this but it’s so easy to do- you just have to stir a lot towards the end of the cooking time. And I’m not that picky about the preserve having a very jelly-like texture.
I also like to oven-roast fresh figs, cut in half and drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The following recipe, using oven-roasted figs, is a nice accompaniment to a cocktail or glass of rose. Figs with prosciutto are a natural combination, but I also love them with bresaola, the Italian air-dried beef. The rich texture and deep, almost peppery flavor of the bresaola are a nice counterpoint to the fresh delicate figs.
Crostini of Fresh Figs, Bresaola, and Ricotta
For 8 hors d’oeuvre size servings
8 fresh figs, any variety
16 smallish paper thin slices of bresaola or prosciutto
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
4 slices bread, halved (I used ciabatta, although almost any bread will do- whole grain is nice with this too.)
3 tablespoons toasted chopped hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds
Fresh oregano, thyme, or rosemary, coarsely torn or chopped
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Cut figs in half, placing them cut-side up on a lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Drizzle the figs with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Roast for 10-12 minutes, or until figs have softened but not lost their shape.
- Meanwhile, brush the bread slices with a little olive oil and lightly toast them in the oven.
- Spread a layer of fresh ricotta onto each bread slice.
- Top with a few fig halves or quarters, and a few pieces of bresaola or prosciutto.
- Sprinkle with chopped nuts and the herbs. If desired, drizzle a little more balsamic vinegar on top.
- Serve at room temperature. (These can sit a while before serving.)
- Note: If you are a vinegar enthusiast like I am, fig balsamic vinegar is the obvious choice for this dish. It is available at lots of places, but I get mine at Kalustyan’s at 123 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.