They’re as old as the hills. That’s as long as figs have been around. They are the antique trees of the garden - the old souls. Figuratively speaking, fig leaves played a strategic role in the cover-up that went down in the Garden of Eden. Their gorgeous, big, showy leaves provided the first fashion statement – au naturel. Figs are, themselves, delicious eaten au naturel, that is, picked right off the tree. Whoever says he “doesn’t give a fig” apparently has never tasted one.
The fig tree was one of the first plants cultivated by Neolithic people more than 11,000 years ago as far back as 9000 BC. Greeks and Romans believed that figs, sacred food, were a gift from the gods. In 1560, fig trees were planted in Mexico. Fig trees came to our neck of the woods from Europe. They reached Virginia in 1669 and then spread down the East Coast.
Who would have guessed it? The English word “sycophant” has its origins in an ancient Greek word meaning “revealer of figs” or “one who shows the fig.” In those days, it was a capital offense to break into a garden and steal figs. A sycophant, in ancient Greek fig trade, was one who informed falsely on fig filchers. Figs were really a hot commodity back in the day!
Fresh figs are perishable and will remain good for only a few days. Among plants, figs are one of the highest sources of calcium and fiber. Figs are good in various pies, cakes and breads. They can be added to oatmeal, quartered and added to a mesclun salad (bitter greens) with shaved parmesan, poached in red wine, or made into jam. Fig leaves are natural wrappers. They were the precursor of aluminum foil, and can keep fish intact inside the leaves while it cooks on the grill.
I’m giving a shout-out to my brother, John, who grew the best figs. His bountiful trees produced jars of fig preserves, year after year. My tree, a bit younger, is not quite as productive yet, but my neighbor shared her bounty with me, and these are the recipes I used to make Fig Preserves and Baked Figs.
2 pints fresh figs, stems
½ cup water
1 cup sugar
½ lemon, cut into thin
-In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the figs and sugar and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes until mushy and syrupy, stirring occasionally. Add the lemon slices and cook another 15 minutes, until the syrup thickens.
The following dessert is warm, full of fruit and walnuts and very easy to make. It’s a good, quick finish to dinner and also makes an elegant-looking dessert for company.
Vanilla Ice Cream
-Preheat oven to 375 degrees
-Arrange figs in an oven-proof dish. Cut a cross into the top of figs and open to form a star.
-Place a spoonful of yogurt in the center of each fig and sprinkle with brown sugar and a splash of Amaretto.
-Scatter walnuts around the figs.
-Bake for 20 minutes.
-Drizzle honey over whole dish and serve. Make sure each plate gets some of the syrup over the fig and walnuts.
Optional: Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Last week, my neighbor Jen told me the squirrels were really eating the figs from her tree. “That means we’re going to have a cold winter,” she said. I checked with the Farmer’s Almanac, and it is predicting a cold winter, too.
Now, Channel 6 may have Cecily with AccuWeather StormTracker radar, and NBC10 First Alert Weather has Sheena Parveen, but I’ve got my money on my friend, Jen. I don’t want to cause a weather girls storm here, but I think she just might know a thing or two — and maybe a fig or two!
Eat well, live long, enjoy! ••
(Questions or tips can be sent to Donna Zitter Bordelon at WhatscookinNEPhilly@gmail.com or in care of the Northeast Times, 2512 Metropolitan Drive, Trevose, PA 19053)