Saturday, September 27, 2014

Figs - they're not just for Newtons anymore

First thing, first - what are these? 

If you said "figs" then you're foodier than most - or you grew up somewhere very different than me! We just moved, and my husband's reaction when I told him we have a fig tree in the yard pretty much sums up what I thought about figs most of my life. "Oh, can we make Newton's out of them?" I went into a spiel about the blasphemy of this for awhile - before remembering my roots. I decided it made more sense to show than tell. Mission: win him over from the Newton category with lots of homemade figgy goodness. 

There was roasted fig salad with balsamic vinaigrette, pickled red onions and spring greens, then fresh fig ice cream with cinnamon roasted almonds and fig-maple syrup swirls, but our hands' down favorite was the whole wheat focaccia with grilled shallots, roasted walnuts and fresh rosemary. See below for pictures and step-by-step instructions for making your own! Warning - share or you WILL over-eat! This is one of the best things I've tasted in a long time.

Whole Wheat Fig Focaccia with Grilled Shallots, Roasted Walnuts and Fresh Rosemary

While figs are delicious roasted, baked, dried and stewed into lots of things, it's a one-of-a-kind experience to eat fresh figs right off the tree. The time for eating them fresh is very short, so you have to know what to look for if you're buying them at a grocery store or picking them. A quick, informal poll of people I spoke with over the past few days showed that no one knows when a fig is ready to eat. Here's an explanation in pictures:

1. Is it a fig tree? This one's simple - look for these distinctive leaves (think: the first "clothes" Adam & Eve wore). Hopefully, yours won't have a photobombing dog in the background...

2. These are the least ripe figs, just as the fruit appears on the tree.

3. Just starting to get a bit of color. Nowhere close to ripe. Of course, these are black mission figs which are purple when ripe. Other types of figs are light green, brown or red when ripe (tricky, I know). Here's where looking at the stem comes in handy. Here, the stem of the unripe fig is holding the fruit nearly straight out from the branch.

4. Lots more color, but the fruit is still sticking nearly straight out from the branch.
5. Here we have it! Ripe fig! See how it now appears heavy and looks like it's drooping from the stem. This works whether your fig is purple or green when ripe. It helps to try pressing gently on the figs with your thumb and forefinger at different stages of ripeness. You'll quickly be able to tell that the unripe figs are firmer than the ripe ones.

6. This one is getting a bit past ripe and will rot soon.  It's just about to fall off the tree. 

A secret to picking the PERFECT fig to eat right now is to look at the bottom (opposite the stem end). This one is just ripe but in a day will look like the one below - so sweet that a sappy juice is literally dripping from it. If you'r purchasing from the grocery store, look for ones like the one above that have a bit of give when pressed between thumb and forefinger but are not, soft, mushy or moldy. The following day or two, they'll likely to get a bit sappy like the one below. If this happens, they must be eaten that day. Sometimes they only get the slightest bit sappy, but they're just as good! If you have a very warm kitchen, store them in a single layer in the crisper drawer on a towel or in an egg carton. I store them at room temperature (about 70 degrees) and eat within 1-2 days. What if you accidentally get underripe figs? Unless they're on the cusp of full ripeness, they don't ripen well once picked. That's OK - just cook them via grilling, caramelizing, making syrup or jam out of them and they'll still be delicious!
Eat RIGHT NOW - it will not last until tomorrow. (Again, photobombed...)
Examples of other types of ripe figs. Over 750 types grow in the Middle East and Mediterranean were figs originated!  The method described in the post for picking ripe figs works for all figs, with the exception of looking at the color.
Photo credit:

Whole Wheat Fig Focaccia with Grilled Shallots, Roasted Walnuts and Fresh Rosemary

1 ball whole wheat pizza dough
Extra-virgin olive oil, roughly 1/4 cup
3 medium shallots (or 1 small red onion), sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/3 cup walnuts, roasted and chopped roughly
1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
10 ripe figs, sliced in half
Coarsely ground black pepper
Balsamic vinegar, optional

1. Roast the walnuts. This step can be done anytime up to a few days before. I generally roast extra and use them in different dishes or freeze them for use later. Preheat oven to 350F. Spread raw walnuts out on a sheet pan in a single layer. Place in oven for 10 minutes. Test for doneness by picking up a handful in your closed fist and seeing if they continue to heat up quickly, causing you to need to put them back down on the pan. If yes, they're done. If not, return them to the over at 3 minute intervals, testing until done. They're also best if the color deepens a shade but does not get dark brown or black.

Testing walnuts to see if they're finished roasting

2. Remove dough from refrigerator. Remove from package, place into a mixing bowl and coat with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours. 

3. Preheat oven to 425F.

4. Grill or roast the shallots (or red onions). 

These are shallots.

Shallots - ends cut off and then peeled. Do the same if using a red onion. Then, slice into 1/4-inch thick rounds.

Add 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to coat well with the oil.

Lay shallots out in a single layer on a preheated grill. You can use electric, cast iron, outdoor grill - whatever you want. Alternatively, you can just lay them on a sheet pan and roast at 450F for 15-25min, turning over after 10 minutes. 

Make sure to turn over once the first side starts to brown or get grill marks. Whether cooking by grill or a sheet pan in the oven, make sure the shallots get a bit browned or blacked to bring out their sweetness. Remove from grill and set off to the side while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

5. Chop walnuts and rosemary roughly. Slice figs in half the long way.

Clockwise from left, bottom corner: chopped walnuts, sliced figs, chopped rosemary.

6. Coat a 13x9" pan, 1/4 sheet pan or 1/2 sheet pan generously with olive oil. Rub a bit of olive oil on your hands and then remove dough from bowl. Make two fists and lay the dough on top of them. Use your fists to gently stretch out the dough to the size of a 13x9" pan (also known as a 1/4 sheet pan). The pictures below show the dough on a larger, 1/2 sheet, pan because that's what I have in my kitchen. Improvise when you need to! If you're scared of stretching the dough with your hands, put it on a larger sheet pan with low sides (like the one in the pictures below) and roll out with a rolling pin. If the dough keeps trying to snap back to it's original shape, it just needs to rest a bit longer. Cover in the bowl again and return for another attempt in 10 minutes.

7. Lay the shallots on the dough, then top with figs, cut-sides-up. Sprinkle with nuts, rosemary, salt and pepper.
Focaccia topped with all ingredients, ready for the oven.

Gratuitous close up of focaccia ready for the oven.

8. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes or until dough is golden and figs are starting to bubble and drip their juices.

9. Slice and serve as is or drizzle with a bit of balsamic vinegar (highly recommended).

Caught fig fever? If you want to grow your own, they are super hardy and easy to grow in zones 8-10 and, if potted, can be grown in zone 7. See the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see what zone you're in. If you live in one of these areas, you can grow fig trees from a cutting of another fig tree. Just cut off branches or small shoots from near the base, plant in dirt and keep watered. The new, small shoots are more likely to take, but even from branches, about 1-2 out of 10 will take - then, they're hard to kill.
Check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map link for bigger image

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