07 October 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Sign of the Season: Figs

SARONNO, Italy - It’s October. The summer is over and the weighty watermelons that filled markets of Saronno during those warm months have been replaced with brimming baskets of plump, ripe figs. Figs have been around for ages, remember what was in Adam and Eve’s closet, and they are an integral part of Italian culture. According to Roman myth the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. Even back there were about 29 varieties of figs.

 Statue of Romulus and Remus in Rome
 While fig trees (fichi) grow all through Italy, figs seem to have originated in western Asia. From there they spread to the Middle East and then to Greece, Tunisia, Spain, and of course Italy. In the ruins of a prehistoric village near Jericho in the West Bank, scientists found the remains of figs that they say appear to be the earliest known cultivated fruit crop, grown as the first domesticated food production almost 12,000 years ago.

Figs are one of the healthiest and most nutritious fruits you can eat. They are particularly rich in fiber and minerals, such as calcium, iron and magnesium. And during times of famine, of which there have been many over the long course of history, figs have saved entire populations. So it's not surprising that here in the Old World, the fig tree represents blessing and bounty.

 Figs on a Plate
There are many varieties of figs on the market. Mostly they differ in their color, from green to red to bluish purple, with an inner pulp that can range from a very light orange to a violet red. The types of fresh figs I see in my local market are either green or dark, bluish purple. For most of my life I thought the green ones were just the dark ones that were not ripe yet. But now I know that isn’t true. I’ve tried them both while there are those who rave about one type of another, I don’t seem much difference in them, other than the green ones have a slightly thicker skin.

Signora Carmella, my local fruttivendolo, told me that the best figs are plump and very soft. She said that while there may be a small opening at the bottom of the fig nothing should be oozing out. She also said that figs are very perishable and spoil rather quickly so it’s best to buy them no more than a day or two before you plan to eat them.

Fig Tree So Pretty
One of the most popular ways to eat fresh figs is to wrap them with a savory prosciutto. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and salty. Another way of eating them is with a tangy cheese like pecorino or parmigiano. They are also good with creamier types of cheese, like marscapone. It’s easy to make.

Simply wipe them with a clean kitchen towel and cut off the stems. Slice the figs in half or in quarters and arrange them in a circle around a plate. If you want you can put a dollop of mascarpone in the middle and drizzle a little honey over them. The only secret to eating figs is they have to be ripe.

 Hmmm, So Good
Another easy recipe is an Insalata di rucola, prosciutto, fichi, e Parmigiano Reggiano (Arugula salad with figs, prosciutto and parmigiano).

After you clean, wash and dry your arugula, spread it evenly on a flat plate. Sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Arrange three or four ripe figs, which have been cut into quarters, skin side down over the arugula. Add thin slices of prosciutto crudo, (Parma or San Daniele), and top with slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

A Tisket a Tasket, Figs in the Basket
Figs are only in our market place for a short period of time, and so while I’m not exactly ready for fall yet I think I’m going to put them on this week’s shopping list anyway. I think they will make the perfect desert for next Sunday’s dinner.

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