A time for figs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Figs are taking shape, filling out as June heads toward July. Plump, sweet, succulent figs, freshly picked, are food fit for royalty. And in the coming weeks every man can be a king.

Fig lovers often eat the first picking right under the shade of the broad-leafed tree, peeled or unpeeled, where the sweet flavor connects generations of families who have passed on an appreciation of the tasty treat.

From countries prominent in the Bible, the Mediterranean native was spread across the Southern United States as European settlers planted the trees to reap the delicate fruit. Taste alone gives figs a prominent place in Southern diets; but the fruit is loaded with nutrients – iron, niacin, Vitamin A and calcium, for instance – and important dietary fiber.

One ripe fig has about 40 calories. Caloric count will not stop the true aficionado, however, from at least one bowl of figs covered with cream or mixed into homemade ice cream, a favorite Southern way to enjoy the summer’s harvest.

On the other hand, bountiful crops of figs – often shared with resident blue jays and mockingbirds – also freeze well for later use, especially when they will be cooked to make the popular fig preserves so loved on hot buttered biscuits on a cold January morning. Figs freeze well unpeeled and placed in plastic containers or freezer bags.

Here are some tips for freezing:

To freeze without sugar, sprinkle light-colored figs with ascorbic acid mixture dissolved in a little water. Place figs in a rigid container. Separate layers with waxed paper or freezer wrap. For individually frozen figs, place on a baking sheet and freeze quickly. Remove individually frozen figs and pack tightly in freezer bags or containers. Avoid air pockets between figs, if possible. Crumple waxed paper and place in headspace of the container or cover surface snugly with plastic wrap. Seal airtight and store in the freezer.

To freeze in syrup, make syrup by dissolving 1 cup sugar in 2 cups water. Allow 1 cup syrup for each quart of figs. To keep light figs from darkening, stir 1 teaspoon of commercial ascorbic acid freezing mixture into each quart of syrup. Fill containers about a fourth full of syrup; pack fresh figs solidly in container. Cover with syrup, leaving an inch headspace. Crumple waxed paper and place on top of figs in the headspace. This helps keep figs under the syrup. Seal airtight and freeze immediately.

Making fig preserves is one of the tastiest ways to enjoy figs throughout other seasons of the year. Peeled or unpeeled figs may be used in the preserves, but many cooks believe it’s worth the time and trouble to peel the fruit because of the beautiful, clear preserves that result.

And once the clever cook has delicious fig preserves to present to friends and family, there is an additional way to use the sweet treat. Among many Southerners’ recipes is the fig preserves cake, one version offered below.

Fig Preserves

2 quarts peeled or unpeeled figs

8 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 lemon, sliced

Sort figs. Use ripe, uncracked fruit. Wash; peel, if desired, using a sharp knife. Wear rubber gloves to protect hands from irritation. Fig juice contains an enzyme that may irritate the skin. The juice also may cause the mouth to become sore if too many figs are eaten at one time. If you choose not to peel the figs, clean the skins by covering washed figs with hot water and bringing to a boil. Remove from heat and let the figs stand for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain. You will get a brighter color by following these instructions.

Make a syrup of sugar and water in a large pot. Stir and heat slowly until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat and bring to a boil for 3 or 4 minutes. Add sliced lemon and peeled or unpeeled figs. Cook on medium heat at a gentle boil until liquid is clear and translucent, usually about 1 1/2 hours. Do not stir. Lift gently from the bottom or shake the pot. Fill hot, sterilized jars with boiling figs and syrup to within half an inch of the top. Wipe sealing edge clean and seal. Process in hot water-bath canner for 10 minutes.

Figs also may be left overnight in syrup to plump. Fill jars, seal and process in water-bath as above but for 20 minutes. When preserves are packed cold, water bath is essential for jars to seal. (From the Louisiana State Extension Service files)

Fig Preserves Cake

Cake:

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups sugar

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup oil

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped pecans

2 cups drained fig preserves, cut into small pieces

Sauce:

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup Marsala, rum or sherry wine (if using sherry, add 1 teaspoon almond flavoring)

For cake, beat together eggs, sugar, buttermilk and oil.

Cream in the flour. Add spices, soda, vanilla, salt and pecans. Fold in figs. Grease and flour a tube or bundt pan. Pour batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Let cake cool in pan.

For sauce, bring buttermilk, sugar and corn syrup to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring until melted.

Add flavoring. Pour sauce over cake while it’s still in the pan. Let it soak overnight. Turn out the cake the next day. (From &uot;Southern Sideboards&uot; by the Junior League of Jackson)

Drying Figs

Drying figs is not as common in the South as other methods of preserving the fruit.

However, the bulk of the world crop of figs is dried. Dried figs are a delicious and nutritious snack and can be used in making fig-filled cookies, cakes and breads.

Using the sun for drying is cheap and easy, too. On long, hot summer days, figs usually will dry in 1 to 1 1/2days.

A car parked in the sun is one good place to dry the figs; the air inside reaches 115 to 120 degrees on hot days. And inside the car the figs are protected from insects and sudden showers.

Use fully ripe figs for drying. Wash and drain them and cut them completely in half to stem. Turn the cut side up on a drying rack that you can make with screen; or use a broiler pan or cake rack.

Cover figs with a piece of cheesecloth, nylon net or thin dish towel. Put in the sun on a table – or in the car. Bring indoors for the night.

Dry figs until the outside is leathery but pliable. The figs inside should be soft with no sign of juice. The process takes about 2 days.

To store, first put in the freezer for two days to kill any insect eggs that might be on them.

Then store in airtight containers on pantry shelf, in refrigerator or in the freezer, depending on how long you expect to keep them.

They will last longer under refrigeration, of course.

You may also dry figs in the kitchen oven by placing the figs on the drying rack in the oven at 120 degrees for 10 to 20 hours.