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July, 2009

Guiltless Decadence: Fresh Figs

By Dennis Linden

July and August are peak flavor months for one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, fresh figs.

The fruit is mentioned on stone tablets as being a staple food in Egypt dating back to 2700 B.C. and the fig has always been considered a kind of iconic symbol associated with ancient Greek culture. Not to mention that the leaf of this delectable fruit was supposedly the clothing of choice for Adam and Eve! Technically, figs are not really a fruit at all, but rather a flower that has folded up into itself. This blossom forms a pear-shaped pod that has a thin to moderately thick skin covering a green, brown or purple jellylike seedy interior depending on the variety. Interestingly, a small hole at the bottom end of the fruit, called the “eye”, leads to a small hollow space in the center of each fig. A very specialized wasp enters through the eye and pollinates the flower. The eye is filled with a honey-like substance that prevents entry of all other insects except this fig wasp.

Fresh figs are very perishable and will spoil just one week after harvest. They can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three days, but they really need to be used as soon as possible because they ripen very quickly. Figs can be ripened at room temperature, but are very sensitive to the environment so keep them out of direct sunlight and turn them frequently to promote an even ripening on all sides. If you need an excuse to enjoy this luscious fruit, know that figs are a completely guilt-free food with many healthy qualities. The ancient Greeks even banned them from being exported to other countries for a time, believing that the fruit would insure their success at the Olympics if they did not share this potent energy food with competitors. Though there is no guarantee that you will win a decathlon on a diet of figs, they can help you keep your shape, if not your stamina. The fruit is a natural appetite suppressor; twenty percent of the fiber in figs is called soluble fiber, which forms a gelatinous mass during the digestion process that slows down digestion and makes you feel fuller longer. This kind of fiber helps to regulate fat and cholesterol absorption. It also assists the body in maintaining a balanced blood sugar count, an especially important attribute for diabetics. The remaining fiber in figs is insoluble fiber, which purges the lower digestive tract of impurities and keeps it in good working order.

Because of their perishability, ninety percent of all figs are dried upon harvest; a characteristic that surely helped the development of the famed Fig Newton cookie! Dried figs are also wonderful in a variety of dishes and baked goods. Place your cutting knife in the freezer for about fifteen minutes before attempting to work with dried figs; this will keep the knife from sticking to the insides of the fruit as you chop, slice or dice them. Here’s a food that satisfies the sweet tooth, as well as that need to enjoy a little culinary decadence, without compromising one’s health in the process! There are several popular fresh varieties available now through September. Here’s a brief description of each to help you take full advantage of the season at hand:
Brown Turkey
Brown Turkey : Medium to large, maroon-brown skin with a juicy pulp. The fruit is nearly seedless and has a mild sweet flavor. All purpose usage.

Black Mission
Black Mission: Purplish-black in color with red flesh, full-flavored, moist and chewy texture. Best for eating fresh, but also good dried. They are named for the California Franciscan missions where they were first cultivated in 1770.

Calimyrna : A large variety with a thick green skin and white interior. Best for drying as it is not as sweet or moist as other varieties. They are usually peeled when eaten fresh.

Kadota: Medium size, yellowish-green in color, thick skin with sweet white to amber-pink pulp. It has only a few small seeds. All purpose usage.

Royal Mediterranean Fig
Royal Mediterranean Fig : A soft, richly textured, seedy red interior wrapped in a thin brown skin. This sweet fig holds its shape when cooked and is great complement to red meat recipes. Since fresh figs are a seasonal fruit, a few off-season options should be mentioned.

Melissa’s Dried Calimyrna Figs
Melissa’s Dried Calimyrna Figs offer a wholesome, low calorie snack right from the bag; or use them in cooking. Of course another popular choice that fills the void of those long, fresh fig-less months from October to May is the more than one billion Fig Newtons that are consumed in the U.S. annually, third only to Oreos and chocolate chip cookies. While these last two are available year-round, the shelf life of an opened package of both can be even shorter than their fresh counterparts. However, it is usually extreme temptation rather than environmental conditions that affect their perishability.