It's a great food injustice that so firmly links the word "fig" to "Newton." Even worse is the likelihood that so many Americans taste this fleeting fruit of fall only as a bland, seedy paste in the iconic cookie.
Fresh figs' fragility and short shelf life — which make them ideal candidates for processing — are the most powerful arguments for eating as many as possible now. Local farmers' markets and many backyards will be awash in figs through October.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, quartered and cut into very thin slices
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 cup crumbled farmer or goat cheese
30 mini phyllo cups (sold in frozen-foods aisle)
4 fresh figs, stems removed, each cut into 8 wedges
In a medium saucepan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and quite golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper, then remove saucepan from heat and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Fill each of the phyllo cups with 1 teaspoon each reserved caramelized onions and the crumbled cheese. Transfer filled phyllo cups to prepared baking sheet and bake in preheated oven until they are heated through, 10 to 12 minutes. Top each with a piece of the fig and season with more ground black pepper. Serve warm.
Makes 10 servings.
I'm guilty of filching a few figs through fence lines where the fruit lies neglected under the trees. I had hoped to have my own backyard tree by now, but the seedling I received as a gift froze in the extreme winter of 2009. Ordinarily, figs weather the Rogue Valley's mild winters just fine.
This year's early-summer rains also spurred fig trees to lush growth and abundant fruiting. The harvest of light-skinned fig varieties began earlier in the summer while darker-skinned ones, like Mission figs, take their sweet time to plump up and soften.
You know figs are ready for harvest when birds are tasting them, too. When shopping for figs, keep a discerning eye. Ripe figs are tender but not gushing. Cracks in the skin are a good sign. A little tear of syrup falling from the eye on the bottom indicates a very sweet fig.
When you get figs home, stick them in the refrigerator and plan to eat them as soon as possible. The only figs that need to be peeled are Kadotas, a large, green variety that have a tough, thick skin.
If figs are left to overripen (I've been guilty of this lapse, too), they melt on the stove into a silky sauce or blend beautifully with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing. Simmering figs in simple syrup with lemon zest and a cardamom pod yields a compote that pairs perfectly with Greek yogurt. I've also gotten rave reviews for saucing homemade pizza with cooked and mashed figs and topping the pie with prosciutto and Gorgonzola cheese.
Indeed, pork and cheese are the ingredients that commonly complement figs. Wrap cooked bacon or raw prosciutto around fig halves stuffed with a bit of blue cheese for an effortless appetizer.
A little more refined with only a smidgen more labor are fig bites in pastry. I've long made these with store-bought wonton wrappers, essentially little pasta squares, usually stocked in the refrigerated produce cases of grocery stores. While these have numerous uses, including semi-homemade ravioli, I love them for fitting perfectly into a mini muffin tin, making a crunchy, little vehicle for any manner of sweet or savory fillings, including figs.
Halve about a dozen fresh figs and place them cut-sides down in a medium-hot pan with a few tablespoons of melted butter. When the figs soften a bit, remove them from the pan and deglaze it with a splash of red wine. To that, add a few tablespoons of brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon and pinch of chili powder. Heat until the sugar is melted and the sauce thickened.
Bake the wonton wrappers in the muffin tin at 350 degrees for about seven minutes. Into each cup, spoon about a tablespoon of mascarpone cheese thinned with a little whipping cream and spiced with nutmeg and more cinnamon. Return to the oven until the cheese starts to bubble, about five minutes. Remove from the oven, top each with a fig half and drizzle with some sauce.
Here's a savory variation from The Associated Press that eliminates a step by using mini phyllo cups, which are becoming more available in local grocers' freezer cases.
Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish