Figs come in hundreds of varieties and in colors that include purple, brown, green, yellow and white. Brown Turkey figs and green figs make brief appearances in the produce aisles, but the fresh figs that you are most likely to see from midsummer to November are black mission figs, which are actually a sort of purple-brown-black and are most commonly grown in California.
History gave them their name, when Spaniards brought figs to the Americas in the 1500s and missionary fathers in California planted them. From the mulberry family, they have a teardrop shape and a pink fleshy pulp with a wealth of extremely small seeds. If you have eaten dried figs and found them not to your taste, or think that all you need to know about a fig can be found in a Fig Newton, you are missing one of summer's greatest delights.
How to buy:
It can't be said too many times: Handle with care. Figs bruise easily, says Magruder's Stanford Steppa, who recommends that shoppers buy them in pint boxes rather than loose. "Boxes protect the delicate fig; if you put single figs in a plastic bag, let that bag bounce around in your cart, by the time you get home you could have fig jelly." And don't turn your nose up at a wrinkled fig, advises Louis Papuchis of Cooseman's, a specialty supplier to Safeway stores. "A wrinkled fig is a sweeter fig; the sugar 'melts' the skin a little." The hard smooth figs you often see are also delicious and will prove sweet, but it may take a day or two for them to ripen to their fullest.
How to store:
Always store figs at cool temperatures--in your refrigerator--and not for long, advises Papuchis. Unlike an avocado, which can stay ripe for days, figs can turn to mush overnight. And though they are delicious, they do not make a good guacamole.
How to serve:
Figs are showing up increasingly as appetizers. Equinox chef Todd Gray serves them with a prosciutto-like Virginia ham and baby arugula. The October issue of Food and Wine suggests serving them warm with goat cheese. (Slice figs in half, arrange them on a baking sheet cut-sides up. Spoon a little goat cheese on each fig half and lightly brush them with balsamic vinegar. Bake them at 350 degrees for about 8 minutes.)
Martha Stewart suggests them in salads, in a sandwich made with prosciutto and wheat bread, paired with a hunk of Roquefort or, for dessert, in a bowl of cold heavy cream with brown sugar. They are good in cobblers with nectarines. Or pair them with green grapes and serve them sauteed with boneless chicken breasts. Does anyone out there remember the Figs Alice B. Toklas that used to be served at 209 1/2 restaurant on Capitol Hill? They were lightly stewed with port and spices--a perfect autumn dessert.