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Fig Heaven

How to Make the Most of a Short Season

By Renee Schettler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2004; Page F01

Each year about this time I hear a voice.

It is a voice that only some of us hear.

The voice tells me, in no uncertain terms, to buy fresh figs. Quite a lot of fresh figs. Insane amounts of fresh figs. And I heed it.

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See, there are those of us who while away the better part of a year waiting to experience the perfectly ripe fig: the plump teardrop shape, the satiny pulp punctuated by the jolt of hundreds of tiny seeds, the honeyed sweetness. It is a sensation one does not soon forget.

But it's not just the taste that triggers this desire. It's also the nine months of fig deprivation. Unlike other fruits and vegetables in our global economy -- asparagus that arrive in markets even in the dead of winter, melons that have no business appearing in October -- the fig has resisted accommodating today's demanding consumers. Figs refuse to be coaxed into ripeness by contrivance, which rules out the notion of year-round figs.

The first batch arrives sometime during June and lasts but a few short weeks. A cruel tease, if you will, before a second, lengthier fig season picks up in late July. During a good year, the second season lasts through September, which translates to something along the line of eight weeks of figs. Fifty-six days, give or take a few.

Then one day, without warning, they just disappear.

The ensuing nine-month hiatus can make you forget the fact that not all figs are created equal. When figs finally do return, the masterminds behind modern packaging seem to presuppose an uncanny ability on the part of the consumer to intuit fig readiness through the barrier of clear, tightly fastened plastic containers.

Such measures may be a necessary evil, designed to protect the delicate fruit from being squashed. To slyly jimmy open a box in the store and steal a quick squeeze -- a reliable indicator of readiness -- does little good. There is usually one lusciously plump, ripe fig nearly bursting out of its skin sitting alongside three others of varying degrees of development -- either hard, hopelessly underripe figs or mushy figs whose sweetness has begun to fade.

And that is why I buy unthinkable amounts of figs and accept the reality: Some are perfect, some are not.

It seems obvious what to do with the perfect ones. (Eat them unadulterated or spoon them up with yogurt and honey.)

It's the less desirable figs that are a challenge. There are ways to work around their flaws if you use ingredients and techniques that de-emphasize their imperfection. Most underripe figs can be coaxed into a state of softness on the counter or masked in a pan sauce or in preserves. Overripe figs need to be treated so that their mushy texture and compromised sweetness is not an issue: smashed onto a sandwich of contrasting textures and flavors, such as goat cheese, prosciutto and arugula, or stirred into an already sufficiently sweet caramel sauce.

Classic pairings include assertive flavors and creamy textures: Fig and arugula salad with balsamic vinegar. Figs wrapped in paper-thin slices of cured prosciutto or serrano ham that crisp and sizzle when grilled or broiled briefly.

Other ingredients that go particularly well with figs are salty aged cheeses or soft, creamy goat or blue cheeses; nuts, particularly almonds and walnuts; caramel; herbs such as thyme and rosemary. Even chocolate goes well with figs.

You just sort of need to use your imagination. After all, the season is entirely too short to have spent even a moment ruing an imperfect fig.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company