For many of us, the thought of figs brings up two things—Christmas pudding (as in “now bring us some figgy pudding”) and, of course, Fig Newton cookies, which is probably how most of us became familiar with figs in the first place. I can’t say I’ve ever had a traditional English figgy Christmas pudding–which is actually a boozy cake that you can set on fire–but I’ve certainly had my share of Fig Newtons. Fig Newtons also always remind me of this kid who used to live down the street from me when I was in elementary school and junior high.
To this day, I can’t think of Fig Newtons without also thinking of Tim Newton, who everyone at school naturally always referred to as “Fig.” Tim was one grade ahead of me and lived about five houses up from us to the north. In junior high, Tim was on the short-side (probably pre-teenage boy growth spurt), a bit wily and very freckly, with brown hair and side swept bangs that tended to fall in his eyes. He was the type of boy who would try to stick his feet under your butt from inside the hole in the back of your desk chair, poke you with his pencil or bug you and try to whisper in your ear all the time while sitting behind you in German class. This probably meant that he had a crush on you, but you just thought he was an annoying pain, even though he was also sort of funny. All of which is very un- real-fig like.
Figs are one of those exotic fruits that, if you’ve never really had them outside of Newton form, it’s easy to look at and think “what the heck do I do with this thing?” I had this experience a number of years ago while spending some vacation time with my brother and sister-in-law on Cape Cod in early September when its nice because all the tourists have gone home. We were staying in a rental that had a small kitchen, and my sister-in-law had brought a recipe for a salad that included figs. We were excited to try it because it sounded really good. After finding some figs at the local A&P (yes, they still have those on the Cape!) in P-town, we took the back to the rental but none of us had ever cooked with them before, and we had no idea what to do with them or how to even tell if they were ripe. Without Internet or smart phones (what did we all do before this stuff?), we had no way of looking up how to use them. Sadly, we ended up throwing them out, unused.
Fast forward and after moving back to California where figs are a bit more ubiquitous, I’m happy to say I’ve had enough of them now to actually know what to do with them and enjoy them, which is more than I can say for how I felt about Tim Newton in junior high…
And here’s a fun fact I recently learned—figs are not a single fruit, but comprised of about 15, 000 single fruits on the inside. Pretty cool. Their pinky flesh, texture and crunch are also part of what makes them one of the more sensual fruits out there. As my sister-in-law recently remarked, “I’m surprised Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t paint figs, too.” Ahem–indeed! And then there’s the matter of men and fig leaves…
Figs also have an interesting fertilization process whereby a fig wasp crawls inside the fruit to fertilize it. Someone I dated a few years ago, L., told me this but also told me the “wasps crawl in there to die, so you’re eating dead wasps when you eat figs,” which is not true. L. liked to tease me about as much as Tim “Fig” Newton, so the fact that this was BS should have come as no surprise to me. Suffice it to say, the wasps do leave the fig once they’re done fertilizing the flower and that crunch when you’re eating figs is not dead bugs, thankfully…
This summer, I’ve been waiting for fig time because I’ve really wanted to try my hand at making fig jam. Whole Foods has been carrying figs for about a month and a half now, but they’ve been a bit on the pricey side. They’ve finally come down in price, so it was time to break down and get some.
My preserving bible, Put ‘Em Up, had a really interesting sounding recipe that included balsamic vinegar in a Sticky Fig Jam. Me being me, I didn’t want to stop at balsamic and I didn’t want to stop just at sweet. I needed a bit of savory as well. The following is loosely based on Sherri Brooks Vinton’s recipe, but it has my savory flair (or maybe I should say savoir faire –ha!). 😉
Fig Balsamic Jam with Carmelized Shallots and Rosemary
2 lbs. figs, washed, stemmed and quartered
2 shallot cloves, minced and carmelized in olive oil
1 c. water
1 c. agave nectar
½ c. balsamic vinegar
¼ c. lemon juice
2-3 tbsp. fresh rosemary
1) In sauté pan, sauté shallot in about 1 tbsp. of olive oil. Brown and carmelize over medium to medium low heat until they have reached desired level of carmelization. Drain and set aside.
2) Place figs and water to non-reactive pan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5-10 minutes so fig skins can begin to soften.
3) Add water, agave nectar, balsamic and lemon juice. Bring back to a boil, then simmer until jam gets to desired consistency—approximately 20-30 minutes.
4) As jam begins to set, incorporate carmelized shallots into jam.
5) When jam has gotten to the set point you desire, stir in rosemary, then turn off heat and let sit for 5 minutes.
6) Can and process by boiling water method, according to directions for your altitude.
As I was making this, I wasn’t super thrilled with how the fig skins were progressing, so I ended up taking it off the heat just before it hit the gel stage and took my handy dandy hand blender to it, which made the jam a much more “jammy” consistency. Feel free to do the same if you’re an impatient sort like I am. I also used Black Mission figs—these are the most popular variety in California, having been brought here by the Spanish missionaries during the Mission period. A jam with some of the green varieties could be really interesting as well.
This jam should go well with both soft, mild cheeses and sharp, tangy ones. I think it could also serve as a good sauce base for meats (pork, chicken)—if you mixed it with some red wine and maybe a tad bit more balsamic and reduced it, it would probably make a great gastrique! You could probably also make some funky bar cookies with it if you’re craving sweet and savory adult Newtons—and I bet even the wily neighbor boy with freckles would approve!
For all sorts of fun fig lore, including references to Buddha and Adam and Eve, check out the Wikipedia page on figs for a kick…
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.