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The fabulous fig

Who says we don't give a fig about this luscious fruit?

By Jane Knoerle

Almanac Lifestyles Editor

Fresh figs are sweet, sensuous and in season.

Markets are now featuring figs, a delicious fruit that has a flavor unlike any other. It's a subtle taste you learn to love. As a kid I hated figs. Like most Americans in those days, the only figs I knew were found in Fig Newtons, a poor excuse for a cookie.

A sweeter memory for me is, years later, eating ripe figs right off a tree in Seville. The taste was wonderful because the fruit was just picked. Unless you're lucky enough to have a fig tree in the backyard, your best bet is shopping for them at a farmers' market or market known for quality produce. Figs that have gone through the distribution system and been refrigerated lose some of that delicate flavor.

Figs are perishable and spoil quickly. The best are plump and tender. They can be refrigerated, but are best eaten at room temperature. Since they are very perishable, they should be purchased a day or two in advance of eating them. Look for figs that have a deep color.

A little history

Figs can trace their history to the earliest of times. They are mentioned in the Bible (Adam and the fig leaf) and other ancient writings. They are thought to have been first cultivated in Egypt. From there they spread to ancient Greece, where they became a diet staple.

Figs were later introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean, then brought to the Western hemisphere by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. Today, California is one of the largest producers of figs, in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain, according to the WH Foods (World's Healthiest Foods) website, whfoods.com.

Figs grow on the ficus tree, which is a member of the mulberry family. There are more than 150 varieties of figs. Some of the most popular are: Black Mission (black skin and pink flesh), Kadota (green skin and purple flesh), Calimyrna (greenish skin and amber flesh), Brown Turkey (purple skin and red flesh), and Adriatic (light green skin, pink flesh, used in fig bars), says the WH Foods website. Black Mission figs are the most available in our area.

Figs are a versatile fruit because they work in both sweet and savory dishes. They combine well with salty flavors. John Bentley's restaurant in Redwood City serves an appetizer of Black Mission figs stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese served on a bed of arugula. Figs are delicious in salads with toasted nuts and prosciutto. The fruit can also be grilled to serve with lamb or chicken, and, of course, there are dozens of fig desserts (think figgy pudding).

Food writer Marion Burros, in a 2000 article in the New York Times, suggests slicing figs in half and topping each half with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of grated orange peel. She also quarters figs, marinates them in a bit of brandy, and serves them with sour cream mixed with a little orange liqueur.

Although fresh figs are my favorite, I could easily be tempted by a dessert featured at Iberia restaurant in Menlo Park, which specializes in Spanish cuisine. The dessert, Higos Rellenos, features dried figs poached in port wine and stuffed with a mixture of chopped walnuts, pistachios, and chocolate drizzled with a port reduction.

Karen Groscup Murphy, who grew up in Menlo Park, now lives in Novato, where she and her husband, Kevin, are both good cooks. She recently made this salad for Father's Day at her parents' home in Sharon Heights.

Fig and arugula salad

6 medium handfuls of arugula

> (Karen prefers wild arugula, if available)

4 figs, quartered and drizzled with olive oil

4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled into large pieces

3-4 parmesan crisps broken into small pieces (available at Trader Joe's)

Combine above ingredients and toss lightly with dressing.

Karen has created her own version of her Grandmother Groscup's salad dressing:

Blend together:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 large shallot, minced

1 generous teaspoon sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of Italian seasoning

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