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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more. This post was brought to you by our friends at Evolution Fresh, who like fresh, flavorful ingredients as much as we do.
Today: Think you know all there is to know about figs? Fig-geddaboudit.
Figs aren’t actually fruit. Of course, nothing will surprise you at this point: Avocados are berries, almonds aren’t nuts, and tomatoes -- well, they’re confused. Botanically speaking tomatoes are fruits, but legally, they’re vegetables (as declared by unanimous decision by the Supreme Court back in 1893).
In the “things that are not what they seem” competition, figs might win, thanks to their fascinating botanical structure. What we think of as the “fruit” is actually called a “synconium.” Each fig is comprised of a hollow shell that surrounds pith and pulp (1, below), which is made up of a bunch of little drupelets, each one formed from a tiny little flower. Because the flowers are so small and tucked away inside of the fig, at one time fig plants were thought to bear fruit without ever flowering.
More: Golden raspberries are another drupelet-packed fruit.
Figs produce fruit in two seasons: In the U.S., there’s one crop in the summer and another in the fall (although some California farmers are trying to extend fig production to year-round). Figs grow well in warm climates, and most of the figs grown in the U.S. come from California, although they're grown in other places too -- some much cooler than you’d expect.
Figs come in a wide range of colors, and there are over 700 different varieties, all of which can be classified as one of four distinct types based on pollination characteristics. The first are common figs, which are able to produce a crop without pollination. The second type, caprifigs, aren't edible, but they’re the source of pollen needed for Smyrna and San Pedro figs, the third and fourth types. (San Pedro figs actually produce their first crop without pollination, but they do require pollination for the second.)
You’re wondering what in the world transports pollen from caprifigs to the tiny hidden flowers of Smyrna and San Pedro figs, and the answer is extremely tiny wasps. They gain access through a small hole -- the ostiole or eye (2, above) -- at the bottom of the fig.
Fresh figs are delicate: They bruise easily and have a short shelf life. Keep them in the refrigerator and use them quickly. To prep fresh figs, simply wash them and twist off their stems (3). Most of the time figs don’t need to be peeled; if a recipe calls for it, you can flout authority and leave them on. If peeling is absolutely necessary, let D.H. Lawrence be your guide.
When you first get your hands on fresh figs, it's hard to resist stuffing one or two straight into your mouth. Don't fight the urge. Jane Grigson suggests you “leave them in the sun for a while before serving them; warm figs are the best of all.” Once you’ve had an initial taste, try one of our 9 favorite ways to use fresh figs.
- Roast ripe figs, then stuff them with marscapone and honey.
- Grill them and serve them with a dollop of homemade lavender crème fraîche.
- Caramelize them with rum and pile them atop a small mound of Greek yogurt.
- Stud cornbread with halved figs, and enjoy a wedge for breakfast.
- Pair figs with a familiar ally (prosciutto) and a less familiar one (mint) in a chilled salad.
- Or, use prosciutto as a wrapper to roll up a filling of fresh figs, arugula, and goat cheese for an impressive addition to your next picnic.
- Try them in a warm salad with crisp greens and blue cheese.
- Blue cheese and figs also make for an impressive tart topping.
- Use fresh figs in a clafoutis with almonds and anise.
What are your favorite ways to use fresh figs? Tell us in the comments!
This post was brought to you by Evolution Fresh. Check out their new pairing guide to find out which foods go best with their juices.
Photos by Mark Weinberg