Whether fresh or dried, figs' sweet, distinctive taste and rich, chewy texture—complete with crunchy little seeds—give an air of indulgence to any dish. The Romans thought so highly of figs they considered them a sacred fruit, and the export of the best figs was forbidden in ancient Greece, where they were a staple food.
Figs grow on the ficus tree, a member of the mulberry family. California is one of the world's largest producers of figs, which prefer temperate climates. Other producers include Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Originating in southern Arabia, figs were brought to the Western hemisphere in the early 16th century by Spaniards, and it was Spanish missionaries who planted fig trees in San Diego in the late 18th century.
Figs are an excellent source of dietary fiber and also provide potassium, calcium and iron.
Varieties include Black Mission figs, which are blackish-purple with pinkish flesh, and Kadota figs, which have green skin and purplish flesh. Calimyrna figs have amber flesh and greenish-yellow skin, and Brown Turkey figs have red flesh and purple skin. Adriatic figs—the variety commonly used to make fig bars—have a light green skin and pink-tan flesh.
Fresh figs are juicy and more brightly flavored than dried figs.
Serve figs simply, with soft cheeses (like brie) and nuts (like almonds) for an appetizer. Or eat them out of hand for a satisfying sweet treat.
Feature figs in tortes and cakes or cookies, like Fig ‘n’ Flax Thumbprint Cookies, which call for fig preserves, flaxseed and warm spices.
Use them wherever dried fruits are called for. Maple and Dried Fruit Stuffed Baked Apples, for example, combines nuts and dried figs and cherries, tucked in apples and basted with cider and maple syrup. Whip up some fig and caramel cinnamon rolls or hearty Honey & Goat Cheese-Filled Fig Muffins.
Figs are perfect in savory dishes, too. Try figs with scallops or chicken (chop them into your next chicken salad). Or add them to sweet/savory sauces, as in this luscious Grilled Duck with Strawberry-Fig Sauce. For surprisingly satisfying taste and textural interest, partner them with a tangy cheese for making Chevre, Fig and Honey Pizzas and Fig and Goat Cheese Turnovers with Mixed Green Salad.
Figs are harvested late summer through early fall. Dried figs are available year round, of course.
If purchasing fresh figs, choose those with a deep color and no bruises. They should be plump and tender, not mushy, and the stems should be firmly in place. The aroma should be mild and sweet, not sour.
Store fresh figs in the refrigerator in a shallow container covered in plastic wrap, and eat them within a day or two, because they're very perishable.
Dried figs should be free of mold, relatively soft, with a pleasant smell. Dried figs will keep for several months in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator, in a tightly sealed container or produce bag. To plump dried figs, simmer them in water or fruit juice.