They figure fresh figs are something to celebrate

August 24, 2005|By ROB KASPER

WHEN A FIG ripens in the 2100 block of E. Baltimore St., somebody picks it.

More than likely that somebody is either Ann Stacy or Carolyn Boitnott. They live a few doors apart from each other in the Butchers Hill neighborhood. They have fig trees in their backyards.

At the peak of the fig harvest, usually around Labor Day, they organize a get-together called a "fignic." The event celebrates the fig, which most of us call a fruit, but a few picky botanists refer to as a flower.

Underneath a spreading fig tree, partygoers stand on a series of adjoining backyard porches, eating, drinking and telling stories about the sweet, but fast-fading, fig. Folks who have a fig tree bring a dish to the party with the fruit in it. Other invitees bring a dish that is fig-free.

The first fignic was four years ago, a collaborative effort of Boitnott and Stacy. It was inspired, they say, both by practical and convivial urges.

Figs arrive in torrents and Boitnott, along with her husband, John, figured that a good way to deal with the surplus of figs was to invite people over to eat them.

As for Stacy, when asked about her motivation to organize the first party, she replied, "Boredom."

The fignic, she thought, could be a "community spark," something to get people out of their houses and mingling. "In the summer, with air conditioning and television, people don't get out on their porches. The fignic could be a good mixer-upper," Stacy said.

Over the years, the list of celebrants has grown as new fans of figs and owners of fig trees in Butchers Hill and beyond have been discovered. Figs of both colors, brown and green, have been welcomed.

Mark Supik is a regular at the gathering. His fig tree sprouted from a cutting he got in 1984 from a tree tended by his father, Edward. Figs like hot weather and some have trouble growing in northern climes, he said.

While Supik's fig tree thrived in his East Baltimore backyard, his father's tree, in Harford County, suffered during the winters. Supik surmised that the enclosed backyard of his city row home protected his tree from the effects of harsh weather.

Many of the enclosed backyards in Southeast Baltimore have fig trees, which were planted years ago when many Italians lived in these neighborhoods, he said. "When you walk in the alleys around Our Lady of Pompei [Catholic Church], you see dozen of fig trees," said Supik, who operates a wood-turning shop nearby at Haven and Baltimore streets.

The late-summer arrival of the figs reminds him of seasonal rhythms, Supik said, but it also shows him that nature can be fierce. Birds love figs and can sweep into a tree, attack the fruit and deposit layers of droppings.

This year, Supik said he has been battling a flock of starlings who eat the center, only the center, of his figs.

"I put netting on the tree, but they flew underneath it," Supik said. Now, he said, he is simply trying to get to his ripe figs before the birds do.

I sympathized with Supik because I am in a similar situation. The fig trees behind my house are under attack by a variety of birds, including a catbird who seems to regard the crop as his.

The other night, as the catbird watched disapprovingly from a perch on an upper branch, I picked a handful of ripe figs.

Using a recipe I got from Stacy at last year's fignic, I stuffed the figs with goat cheese, then wrapped them in slices of bacon that had been sprinkled with brown sugar and cumin and heated them. Figs like cumin, Stacy had told me.

Boy, was she right. The combination of the sweet figs, the tart cheese and the seasoned bacon was a knockout. The next day I was out in the backyard battling the bird for the remaining figs. Both of us wanted them for appetizers.

Ann Stacy's Figs Poached With Sambuca

Serves 4 to 6

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt to taste

3/4 cup sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur

2 tablespoons sugar

12 firm figs

pepper to taste

3/4 cup ricotta

Cook the pine nuts in the hot oil about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels; salt to taste. Simmer sambuca with sugar in a pan large enough to hold the figs upright. Cut a thin slice from the bottom of the figs and stand them in the liquid. Poach at a bare simmer for 5 minutes.

Salt and pepper the ricotta, then place a spoonful on a plate next to a fig, drizzle with the poaching liquid and top with pine nuts.

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 196 calories; 5 grams protein; 9 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 10 milligrams cholesterol; 40 milligrams sodium

Ann Stacy's Stuffed Figs

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cumin

12 strips of bacon

12 whole, fresh figs

2 to 3 ounces goat cheese

Combine brown sugar and cumin in a bowl. Sprinkle mixture over one side of bacon strips. Broil bacon strips or cook in microwave until they are almost crisp. Drain and let cool. Make a small opening in center of figs with a knife and stuff cheese in the fruit.

Wrap a slice of bacon around each fig, securing with toothpick if necessary. Heat stuffed, wrapped figs for a minute under broiler or in microwave.

Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 194 calories; 7 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 18 milligrams cholesterol; 331 milligrams sodium

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