One's Prize For Bringing Delicate Fig To Fruition? All Its Tasty Recipes

August 26, 2009|By ROB KASPER

Few endeavors in life are as rewarding and frustrating as having a fig tree in your yard.

On the plus side, it produces loads of ripe fruit.

On the minus side, it produces loads of ripe fruit.

The fruit attracts birds. They peck the fruit, knocking juicy bits off the tree and onto cars parked below. A fallen fig leaves a tenacious stain, one that even a high-pressure hose has trouble dislodging.

Combine these fig stains with the droppings deposited by feasting birds, and for a few weeks in the summer cars residing under the trees look as though they have been trashed by paint-ball-wielding vandals.

This juxtaposition of the agricultural and the urban, of figs growing in a parking pad behind our center city rowhouse, is part of the fruit's appeal for me.

Somehow harvesting figs in a wind-swept field would not yield the same sense of accomplishment as jockeying the cars, fetching a stepladder and risking injury as I stretch into the branches to retrieve the prized morsels. The adage that the higher you climb, the sweeter the fruit appears to be true.

However, these alley figs, like fresh figs grown everywhere, put a lot of pressure on their proprietors. You can't dally with fresh figs. Their biological clock ticks very fast. Fresh figs are notoriously averse to preservation. Like high-wire acrobats, they have brilliant soaring moments. But then they quickly descend to Earth.

As a guy with a kitchen full of fresh figs, I was looking for ways to use them, so I called a couple of area chefs and cooks, friends of figs, looking for ideas.

"You only have a couple of days to work with them," Michel Tersiguel, chef at Tersiguel's restaurant in Ellicott City, told me. "They are so fresh I like to serve them raw, or maybe flash-cook them on the grill and wrap them in bacon."

Tersiguel, who grew up in Baltimore, became intimately familiar with figs when he lived and worked in California's Napa Valley. "There was a fig tree right outside my bedroom window," he said. "Every morning at 6 o'clock, the birds would wake me up," as they descended on the tree for their early-morning meal, he said. Working under California chef Michael Chiarello, Tersiguel developed several recipes for the fast-fading fruit.

"I like the dark Mission and Turkey figs," he said, adding that he buys the figs, shipped in from California, at the wholesale market in Jessup. He also has an eye for the light-colored, Kadota figs, which, he said, are the most fragile. "With the dark figs you can stuff them once they start to turn, but with the white figs they have to be perfect," he said.

One treatment Tersiguel employs is coating figs in a batter of semolina flour and butter and frying them in canola oil. He said he also makes fig vinegar, using fruit that is soft. He soaks the figs in balsamic vinegar for five days, then cooks the mixture down to about half its original volume. Finally he purees it and strains it, leaving some pieces of fig in the mixture, he said.

Jason Lear, executive chef at the Wine Market, listed a few of his favorite fig treatments during a phone interview.

"Roasted figs and foie gras, and figs stuffed with blue cheese are great combinations," he said.

Moreover, Lear said as a simple fig sauce is outstanding with duck and rabbit dishes. Finally, he suggested making a bread pudding using lavender and figs, a dish he serves at the Locust Point restaurant.

Next I called Ann Stacy, who several years ago gave me wonderful, rich recipe that calls for stuffing figs with goat cheese, wrapping them with strips of bacon that has been cooked with brown sugar and cumin, then heating the figs briefly under a broiler. Stacy now lives in Fells Point, but when she lived in Butchers Hill she and a neighbor, Carolyn Boitnott, organized a "fignic," an annual gathering of fig lovers.

Stacy pointed out that the current issue of Bon Appetit is full of fig recipes. Sure enough, it had a fistful of suggestions, ranging from simply cutting open the figs and stuffing them with ricotta to drizzling them with thyme and balsamic vinegar to making fig jam. I might try making fig jam, if I can find aragan oil, a Moroccan oil that appears to be a key ingredient in the recipe.

Each summer after battling the birds for the figs, I promise myself I am going to do something special with the harvest. It is a promise I rarely fulfill.

Mark Supik said he does the same thing. Supik, who operates a wood-turning business, has a fig tree in his East Baltimore backyard. Every year, Supik said he has grand plans for figs. This year, for instance, he said he is thinking of stringing them on monofilament and drying them in the sun. "But mostly I end up eating them out of my hand," he said.

Supik also told me he propagated several fig seedlings from his tree. He is willing to give them to anyone who wants to plant a fig tree in their yard.

But that undertaking is not without its peril. In a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine William Grimes, a former restaurant critic for The New York Times, told how he and his wife planted a fig tree in their New York City backyard. The fig tree took over.

"The tree did not know when to quit," Grimes wrote. "As it pursued imperial ambitions, its thick leaves blocked light to ever greater swaths of the backyard. We cut it back ruthlessly each fall, only to see it rebound, until, last year, we did the unthinkable and removed the tree, root and branch."

Grimes, author of the coming "Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York," learned a lesson that some of us already know: You don't have a fig tree, it has you.

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