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Groundwork: Fig Season


The vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins --The Washington Post)

As you can see, the vegetable garden can look pretty as well as yummy in late summer. The cardoon's silver leaves and the white flowering garlic chives lend a cool and verdant vibe. Below them is a fabulous herb, the thyme-like winter savory. It's a great garden plant for a sunny and free draining spot, and should be used a lot more.

Recipe Included

Cindy Brown and the gang at Green Spring Gardens are harvesting lots at the moment, including cow peas, okra, string beans, tomatoes and chili peppers. Seed of carrots and Asian greens, sown a couple of weeks ago, are now up and promising a nice fall crop. These cool-loving veggies are often stubborn to germinate in the heat of August. Cindy reports that the key to success this year was to cover the seeds with a fine layer of compost, and then another thin layer of leaf mold on top. Even moisture is critical for seed germination and these mulches do a good job of retaining the soil moisture.

The crop of the week, though, is the fig.

The fig tree, as it turns out, has been one of the winners in Washington's progressively warming climate.

Years ago, it was the gardener's badge of honor to get fig trees (actually multi-stemmed shrubs) through our winters. If a bush died to the ground, and they often did, it would take two or three seasons for the emerging suckers to reach fruiting age. So gardeners went to great lengths to create aesthetically challenged ways to protect figs, wrapping them in carpets and the like. In colder places like New Jersey (where figs were an important crop in ethnic cuisine), gardeners would actually grow fig trees in a way that the stems could be buried in trenches during the winter.


Unidentified yellow fig at Green Spring, possibly Marseilles. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Warming winters have made that a thing of the past, pretty much, although new figs are always less hardy than established plants. Cindy recommends new plants get a tomato cage their first winter or two. The cage is filled with leaves and wrapped in burlap. Once a fig develops a decent root system it can grow like nuts. Last year, I came across a tree in Bethesda that was just seven years old but already 20 feet high. I have fig plants in my garden that are about five years old and 15 feet high. Big and tropical-looking, they are fabulous landscape plants for larger areas.

The problem with mature specimens is that you can't get to the harvest unless you have an orchard ladder. As they ripen and split, they are devoured by wasps, butterflies and birds. The largest specimen at Green Spring was so large (at 25 feet) that Cindy reduced it to 15 feet the winter before last. The hardy variety known as Brown Turkey, it is now full of figs softening and turning from green to purple-brown.

As with grapes and melons, you want them to ripen when the weather's dry, so the fruit retains a maximum sweetness and doesn't split. In another part of the garden, Cindy grows smaller figs, one a dark fruited Petite Negri and an unnamed yellow fig that might be Marseilles.

Fig season is fleeting, but part of our farewell to summer. It is also the consummate crop in the realm of living seasonally. But what to do with all those figs? Cindy knows.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Figs have a short but much anticipated growing season in the Washington area. If you are not lucky enough to own a fig tree or know someone who does, now is the time to look for them in the farmers markets.

Once you eat a locally grown fig, you will think twice before buying the shrink-wrapped varieties found in the grocery stores; nothing compares to a fresh fig.

Serve with rustic bread.


What a lovely late-summer meal: roasted figs, a dressing of honeyed goat cheese, yogurt, thyme, lemon juice and olive oil, some peppery greens and grilled lamb. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Roasted Fig Salad With Grilled Lamb
4 servings

Serve with rustic bread.

MAKE AHEAD: The lamb chops need to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

Adapted by Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, from two recipes in the September issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

For the lamb
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
2 large cloves garlic
Leaves from 4 sprigs mint, chopped (1/4 cup)
Leaves from 4 stems rosemary, stems reserved to use as shish kebab skewers at a later meal), chopped (1/4 cup)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
8 lamb loin chops (about 1 3/4 pounds total; may substitute 1 pound leftover grilled lamb, cut into slices)

For the figs
12 figs (Brown Turkey figs are the most commonly grown in this area, although any fresh fig would be appropriate), cut lengthwise from stem end
Leaves from 2 stems thyme (about 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the salad
1/2 cup Greek-style yogurt
1/2 cup soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice from 1 lemon (2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon salt
7 cups watercress or arugula leaves (stems trimmed), washed and spun-dry

For the lamb: Combine the mustard, garlic, mint, rosemary, oil and salt in the bowl of a mini food processor; puree to form a paste. Rub it all over the lamb chops; cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Let the lamb come to room temperature before grilling.

Prepare the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat the grill to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Place the chops on the grill grate and cook for 4 minutes; a crisp crust will form. Then turn them over and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until crusted on the second side (medium-rare).

Meanwhile, roast the figs: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place the fig halves, cut sides up, on a baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with the oil and sprinkle with the thyme. Roast for 10 minutes, then let cool.

For the salad: Whisk together the yogurt, goat cheese, honey, vanilla extract, lemon juice and salt in a medium bowl to form a dressing. Thin with a little olive oil or water, if desired. Divide the greens among individual plates.

To assemble: Arrange the lamb chops on top of the greens, then place 6 fig halves around each portion. Scoop dollops of dressing over the lamb and salad.

Per serving: 737 calories, 37g protein, 37g carbohydrates, 50g fat, 18g saturated fat, 119mg cholesterol, 1142mg sodium, 5g dietary fiber, 29g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  September 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, figs, recipes  
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Comments

I looked at Arlington Farmers market and Eastern Market for figs this weekend- who has them!? I hope there's some left next weekend.

Posted by: CapitolHillLB | September 7, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

CapHillLB, you are right - I have not seen figs at the local farmers mkts yet this year -- I asked one farmer who had a large amount last year and he said last year's frozen February really toke a toll on his fig trees - basically the top third died back. He has figs but not enough to bring to market. So there ya go, frigid winter equals fewer figs for us addicts.
- Kathy Jentz, Washington Gardener Magazine
www.washingtongardener.com

Posted by: KathyMJ | September 9, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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