About the only time most Americans encounter the humble fig, sadly, is in a certain ubiquitous jam-filled cookie. That's just a shame, as the fig not only brings sweetness and texture to desserts, but it plays well in savory dishes as well, especially pork.
Figs have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Egyptians and are mentioned more than once in the Bible. They're primarily grown along the Mediterranean, especially Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, but California has become a major exporter of these jewels as well. If you're lucky enough to find fresh figs in your supermarket, odds are it came from California.
As for what you can do with figs, it's more like what can't you do. They're ideal for jamming, and they go well in cookies, ice cream, and cakes, or just by themselves. Raw figs make a great appetizer or dessert, with a dollop of marscapone or creme fraiche, some mint, or a drizzle of honey or balsalmic vinegar. The fig plays well in any course.
Fresh raw figs are pretty much only available during the autumn months in much of the United States, but dried figs can be found year round and will keep much longer.
Figs are also very good for you, being a high source of dietary fiber, and they're rich in potassium, vitamin B-6, copper, and manganese.
While I am very fond of them in desserts, one of my favorite recipes, courtesy of AllRecipes.com, is a Greek-inspired fig and olive tapenade appetizer. The sweetness of the figs and balsalmic vinegar is balanced by the saltiness of the kalamata olives and cream cheese. It goes great with crusty French bread or rye crackers, and you can easily swap out green olives for the kalamatas or use goat cheese or sour cream in lieu of the cream cheese. Much like the fig, this recipe is very versatile.
1 cup chopped dried figs
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2/3 cup chopped kalamata olives
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts
8 oz cream cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Combine figs and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and cook until tender, and liquid has reduced.
Remove from heat, and stir in the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rosemary, thyme, and cayenne. Add olives and garlic, and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and refrigerate for four hours or overnight to allow flavors to blend.
Unwrap cream cheese and place on a serving platter. Spoon tapenade over cheese, and sprinkle with walnuts. Serve with slices of French bread or crackers.