May 21, 2013

Rich, earthy figs are a double-crop delight

Now that summer's creeping up, figs are just about to reach their perfect plumpness and land on a plate near you.

Now that summer's creeping up, figs are just about to reach their perfect plumpness and land on a plate near you.

The fig remains a staple for local home cooks and pro chefs alike, whether it's grilled in the backyard or added to a pizza with salty and savory prosciutto. The sweet taste of figs and their fleshy texture make them a natural fit for any summer menu.

No wonder figs are a favorite seasonal ingredient for chef Adam Pechal of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en. His "figgy piggy" pizza of figs, smoked bacon and caramelized onion remains a summer staple at Tuli.

"Figs are different than other summer ingredients," Pechal said. "They have a richness and earthiness that you'd expect from fall ingredients. Figs give a nice juxtaposition to the other ingredients of summer."

The ancient and much-loved fig thrives in hot, dry climates with long summers, meaning that large swaths of California are perfect for growing them. The Central Valley, especially around Fresno and Merced, remains a hot spot with more than 9,300 acres dedicated to fig production.

And you'll find plenty of figs around the greater Sacramento region, whether they're growing wild along the railroad tracks near Land Park or cultivated in the Capay Valley. Figs are also grown at West Sacramento's Del Rio Botanical, which services many of Sacramento's leading restaurants.

"They grow fantastic in the Valley," said Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, the farmer and owner of Del Rio Botanical. "We have one tree that's about 100 years old and can get huge (crops)."

Before we get to some culinary tips for figs, let's take a closer look at this fruit. Well, technically it's not a fruit in the usual sense, though a fig has seeds and tastes sweet. A fig is a kind of inverted flower called a syconium. Figs also don't grow on trees, but rather as pomegranates do, on a multitrunk bush.

Figs were a favorite of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and considered sacred in many circles. Figs are mentioned throughout the Bible, including the "Parable of the Barren Fig Tree" from Luke 13:6–9, which alludes to repentance and God's patience.

Most fig varieties are harvested twice a year. Around the Sacramento area, the first flush of figs comes from late May to mid-June. These first-harvest figs are known as breba figs, which Ashworth expects will be ripe by early June.

"This crop won't kick in until we get well into the 90s and stay there," Ashworth said. "We keep trying, but we end up with (cool) days. Right now the figs are huge and green. It's definitely a June kind of harvest."

The second harvest of figs will come during the heat of August, which produces a smaller yet sweeter and juicier fig than the breba crop. Some folks prefer to use this second harvest for dried figs, given their higher sugar content.

This year's overall crop of figs looks more fruitful compared with 2012. Mike Motroni, who farms 10 acres of Black Mission figs in Esparto in Yolo County, said some of his trees didn't produce a single fig last year.

"I'd never seen it that shy before," Motroni said. "This year looks pretty good. The first crop will come in around the 15th of June and last until the end of the month."

Whether you're foraging for figs or buying them at a farmers market, selecting them when they're ripe is key. Look for an appropriate color and semi-soft texture that means they've developed enough sugar. An unripe fig is basically inedible.

"If it's a Mission fig or Black Turkey fig, you want them to be black, not huge and green," Ashworth said. "And you want them to have some softness. If they're rock-hard they're not going to be any good."

Figs can be a little tricky since they have a fairly short shelf life. Once they're ripe and freshly picked, plan to use them within a couple of days. These aren't the best items to buy in a supermarket, where the figs are generally packed underripe and then have to travel.

Source them at the farmers market for the best results, or directly from Motroni's farm come mid-June (24727 County Road 22, Esparto). Motroni anticipates the prices will range from $2 to $2.25 per pound. for fresh figs this season.

The two fig crops require different culinary approaches. Breba figs tend to be larger, firmer and a little less sweet than their late-summer counterparts. Breba figs work especially well on the grill, and are good for stuffing with ricotta or a tangy goat cheese.

Rick Mahan, chef and proprietor of The Waterboy and OneSpeed, likes to grill figs that are wrapped in prosciutto and topped with a little balsamic vinegar and goat cheese.

Tuli and Thir13en's Pechal also finds figs to be a low-fuss yet tasty item for the grill.

"I like to throw them on the grill with a quick marinade of balsamic and olive oil, and some black pepper," Pechal said. "You'll want the oil there because they're sweet and they'll want to stick. Cook them maybe a couple minutes on each side, crumble a little bleu cheese over the top and you're good to go."

Don't try that with the softer and more sugary figs from late summer. Those will likely just fall through the grill. Instead, they're better suited for dishes that are geared for the sweet tooth.

"The late-August figs are a very juicy and very, very sweet fig," Ashworth said. "That's the one for jams, fig (cookies) and pastries. The breba crop is bigger and drier."

Motroni, the farmer, remains a fan of drying those second-crop figs for about a week. They might not be as photogenic as fresh figs, but there's still plenty of flavor – and they store well, too.

"Figs will last if you put them in cold storage for a couple days. Then the skin will start to wrinkle," Motroni said. "The appearance is not as pretty, but the fig itself still tastes good. If you put them in the freezer, you can have figs all year."

No matter which crop you're working with, pork and figs are a perfect pairing. That pig product could be ham, smoked bacon or pancetta. OneSpeed's known to feature a pizza of figs, onions and smoked ham on its summer menu.

"Figs love pork," Mahan said. "They both have a level of sweetness that goes together. It's not overtly sweet, but pleasant."

And don't forget the prosciutto, as Pechal prefers.

"A little cured pork, figs and bleu cheese, that's my go-to," Pechal said. "The fig is a rich fruit and it needs rich accompaniments. It's a fun summer ingredient that brings a richness that's not typical."

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Recipe: Pork tenderloin with shallots and fresh figs
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Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

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