Veggie of the Week - Figs
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Some foods require a suspension of perception before they can be tried for the first time. Ripe cheeses and durian are easy examples. In order to bring ourselves to try these, we have to use either reason or faith (as well as holding our breath) to get past the odor to try the flavor. Other foods require other tactics: accepting the bitterness in coffee or dark chocolate, or the bad fruit-tannic acid smell and flavor complex of red wine. In extreme cases, such as balut, you may need to block or filter all non-taste sensory input, as well as your concept of 'food', before you eat.
Fresh figs are, for some people, a bit like balut. The difficulty has nothing to do with odor, which is of a slightly vinous honey. Rather, it has to do with the look and feel of a fresh fig being so far from what one normally associates with fruit. From the outside, a fresh fig looks and feels a bit like something squishy enclosed in a leather pouch. Unlike a banana skin, the fig peel can be eaten. The peel is not inconsequential, like the peel of a grape or a peach, and its thickness and unfruity slightly tough chewiness by contrast highlight the distinctly unfruity texture of the interior, a jamminess filled with tiny seeds, like what's left over from making seedless raspberry jam, perhaps. If you cut open a red-fleshed variety, you're liable to think of an organ meat before you think 'fruit'.
However, once you've put these considerations aside and eaten a couple of fresh figs, you may get to like the flavor, which will generally combine a strong element of honey with elements of tobacco, wood decaying or not, moist earth and, if ripe enough, wine. Then you can go back and start to explore the textures, colors and the structure of the fruit itself. The fig is an example of a composite fruit, really a lot of fruits in one package, like a pomegranate or pineapple. You can see this, as well as feel it, as you eat the jammy pulp.
Figs, like pears, are useful in pretty much every course in a meal, from salads to savories to dessert, where they can be served raw with cheese and nuts, or as compote, in pastry dishes or ice cream. If you have some really ripe figs, you might scoop the pulp out into a bowl, add chopped slightly toasted walnuts and some very fine diced white onion. This can be used as a spread or 'dip' to accompany cheeses or other fruit, or as a sandwich or omelet filling, on its own or with cheese or more nuts. Add fine diced fresh or crushed dried hot peppers, and you have a sort of 'salsa'; use as above and to accompany other dishes.
There is evidence to think that the fig is the oldest known domesticated food plant, with a date comparable to that of the 'weed' (arguably undomesticated, or 'accidentally' domesticated), Chenopodium album, featured recently.
list of varieties
Balut - warning: PG advised
photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org