July 31, 2012

In praise of figs

I feel like I hit the jackpot this summer. Not the kind of jackpot that would make me rich, but I honestly think I am just as happy, if not more, with the one I've won: I've come into a windfall of figs. And not only are they gorgeous and exotic, delicious and hard to come by, but they happen to be my favorite fruit to cook and bake with.

We bought a rental property --a major fixer-upper--one year ago and we've been rehab-ing it all year so we could rent it for extra income. It was a huge project and D. has worked so hard and it is finally (almost) complete. It will all be worth it eventually, when we start to recoup our investment in the form of rent. But for now, I feel like we've gotten the biggest return on our investment in the form of sweet, juicy figs. You see, the property has two huge, old fig trees on it --so big their thick roots are almost fused together and the canopy reaches into the sky and down to the ground, laden with plump, juicy figs, ripe for the picking.

Last year we owned the property but had not started working on it in earnest when the figs started coming in. On top of that, the house had been empty for several years prior and in much need of some attention. The day I went over to harvest all the figs I was met with an empty tree--someone had brought in equipment overnight and harvested every single one of them. Thieves of the worst kind! So this year not only do we have renters in one of the units already, but I put up a no trespassing sign and placed this intimidating security guard on duty.

We have been harvesting them almost every day for over a week now. There are more than we can pick with only a ladder to get to the top of the tree. But it's been so much fun to go over there with June and show her how good just-picked fruit can be. We pick and eat until our grocery bags are full or the mosquitoes start to eat us alive, whichever comes first. Then I get to work on canning, freezing, baking and otherwise trying to preserve these beauties as best I can.

I have an Italian friend, Elisabetta, who is from Rome and I've known her for 15 years. Her mom, Ignazia Mancini is one of my culinary inspirations and makes the most delicious "marmellata di fichi" (fig jam) I've ever tasted (in Italy fig trees grow rampantly throughout the Southern regions).  She always gives me some of her jam when I go visit her and it's been a while since I've had that tasty treat in my fridge. Last summer, upon purchasing the property and discovering the figs, I asked Betty for her mom's recipe. This summer I finally got the chance to make it. It is a wonderful combination of figs with a little dark cocoa thrown in to give it that extra depth of flavor and dark color. (Recipe below).

I've made two batches so far and gave some away to friends and stashed a couple of jars for us for the winter.

Last weekend I made a beautiful fig tart that I plan on making for the open house at Lockeland Table next Monday night. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in for some yummy apps and a bite-sized version of this super-local (as in 14th street y'all) fresh fruit tart.

And for a dinner party on Sunday with friends, I stuffed fresh figs with bits of smoky bleu cheese and drizzled them with honey and a sprinkle of sea salt. To.die.for.

Call me crazy, but I can't get enough of this amazing fruit! If you know of any other great fig recipes or ideas, please send them my way. I've even tried freezing some by laying them on a baking sheet to harden and then packing them into a plastic freezer bag and sucking out all the air with a straw. I've never tried freezing fruit, but it will be interesting to see what shape they're in when I pull them out in January or February for a little taste of summer.

Marmellata di fichi (recipe courtesy of Ignazia Mancini) 

about 1.5 lbs of figs (750 grams)
1 and a 1/2 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
juice of half a lemon (optional)

Wash and remove the stems of the figs then put in a large stockpot on med. heat and cook, stirring frequently so they don't burn, for about 30-45 min.  Remove them to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Put back into the pot and add the sugar. Cook on low, stirring occasionally, until thickened and the consistency of jam (about 45-1 hour). Add the cocoa powder and lemon juice (if desired--I always add a bit of citrus to any jam to bring out the flavor of the fruit and add acidity) and stir until blended. Turn off the heat and prepare your jars according to most canning recipes. Fill jars and process using the boiling water method for at least 15 min. Place on a towel to cool and let the tops seal. If any do not seal, place in the fridge and eat within two weeks. Processed jars will be good for at least one year.

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