Did you know that figs might be more than 11,000 years old?
Neither did we, until recently: Remains of the mystical fruit have been found in an ancient village near Jericho, in the West Bank, from that long ago. (The beloved Fig Newton, on the other hand, is a cool 124 years young.)
But just because the jewel-like fruits have a long history doesn't mean that we don't pounce on the fragrant lobes at the markets on the cusp of fall—or find new ways to cook with them, like our sweet-and-sour fig agrodolce (see the recipe).
Soon the sensual fruits will disappear, leaving you to wonder if they were just a figment of your imagination. Before they do, take our Fig-onometry 101 course on identifying, buying and eating them—if they make it home from the market, that is.
Figs are many a splendored thing. The fruit can come in many varieties and shades: They can be pear-shaped (Celeste) or stout (Marseilles). Their skin can range from yellow (Alma) to pale green (Adriatic) to dark purple (Mission or Brown Turkey). The supple fruit usually hangs in pairs from their tree, and when ready to be picked, the fruit's skin becomes dewy and may have a slight tear indicating that the fruit can barely support its own weight.
Choose wisely. Since the fruit is extremely delicate and doesn't do well in cold climates, they are often sold underripe—and for a pretty penny. When you're buying, the fruit should be undamaged, soft to the touch and oozing just a bit of its sugary syrup from within. Dense, hard figs will probably not fully ripen and are best macerated, poached or added to braises. On the other hand, if you buy them overripe, you'll know it because the figs will taste a little sour, which means they have begun to ferment.
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Show your sweet side. I'm not usually a huge fan of sweets, but figs' fragrant, almost honey-scented flesh makes them ideal for baked goods, desserts, ice cream and sauces like our roasted fig agrodolce. Rather than making the sauce on the stovetop like a traditional agrodolce or a gastrique, figs, fennel, shallots and garlic are slowly roasted before being combined and lightly smashed with currants and raisins that have been plumped with red wine vinegar. What results is a sweet-and-sour condiment with a bit of heat. It's like a more versatile mostarda without the bitterness—and, dare we say, it's our next fig thing.
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