Karla's Figs

For last weekend's soiree at Casa Appetite, I insisted on doing all the food. But when my girl Karla called and told me that her fig tree was bursting with fruit, I immediately relented. How could I say no to an offering of fresh figs?

A zillion years ago, I FTD'd a fig tree to a boy I loved in Australia, but that was way before I had ever eaten a fresh fig myself. Not until I met Karla nine years ago did I get my very own hands-on experience with a ficus tree and its magnificent low-hanging fruit that has traveled the world over the ages.

Fresh figs from Karla's tree. (Kim O'Donnel)

I've always had a thing for figs and, like many American kids, the introduction began with the Fig Newton, a cookie I couldn't get enough of. My dried figgy experience expanded to a more sophisticated level in the late 1980s, when I worked at a gourmet shop in Philadelphia owned by four fig-loving Iranians. One of their signature cookies was a homemade fig-filled treat, soft, sweet and strange, and I prayed for broken pieces that I could take home at the end of my shift.

Fresh figs came into my life as a line cook, and I remember the aha! moment of eating one wrapped in salty prosciutto, a yin-yang flavor combination that had me wanting more. And once I got the hang of the sweet-savory thing, I started to play, adding basil to the dish and replacing the ham with a stinky blue cheese.

Every summer, I wait for Karla's cue that figs are coming, and I stop whatever I'm doing and make room. As is the case with everything on Mother Nature's watch, the ficus tree's fruit-ability is dependent on the weather. Some years have been fig-less, while others have been abundant, with two full figgy seasons.

And so, because Karla knows how much I love the fig, she gave me one of the best birthday presents ever: a gorgeous platter of halved figs sitting atop basil leaves and slices of fresh mozzarella.

While everyone oohed and aahed over the culinary artwork, Karla asked me for some olive oil, which she drizzled on top. Who needs honey when you can have olive oil on your figs?

And so the gang tucked in, enthusiastically stuffing their mouths with figgy treats, just like the ancient Greeks and Romans might have done. For them, figs were a symbol of abundance and fertility.

Since the party, Karla's been out of town, but she invited me to check in on her ficus tree and harvest any new arrivals. I stopped by yesterday afternoon, my goodie bag in tow. I could smell the ripe fruit several feet away. The tree was indeed chock-full of light green and violet morsels; however, much of the harvest had been nibbled on by birds. Nonetheless, I found a dozen unblemished figs that were ready for feasting and clipped a bunch of basil, just as the culinary muses had ordered.

Within a few hours, Mister MA and I were supping on an instant presto frozen flatbread and the glorious fig-basil combo plate. I savor each bite because I know this is it for fresh figs until next year.

And I can't wait.

Are you a fig fan? Share your tales and favorite ways to feast on them in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 24, 2007; 9:47 AM ET Kitchen Musings , Summer
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I had no idea figs grew in this area, but after trying to tame the jungle in the back yard of the house we bought by leveling everything to the ground, the fig trees came back. Most of what we have is new growth, so most of the harvest should be in the fall, but I've started picking them off the tree. Unfortunately, I haven't really gotten past eating them on the spot. If all of the green fruit ripen, though, I'll be in fig heaven!

Any other hints on eating figs? I was wondering what would happen if I roasted them a bit.

Posted by: Eggplant | August 24, 2007 10:47 AM

I discovered the joys of fresh figs last summer at my friend, Mark's home. I'd never seen them in my hometown which is where he lives now. They were fresh off the tree and oh so sweet. We've been discussing some tasty ideas involving figs and brandy and making our own liquer. Oh for a couple of thin slices of good Virginia ham and some sharp cheddar to go with them right now.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | August 24, 2007 11:34 AM

This is going to sound strange, but I haven't really had my fig experience. I have tried to buy some a the market but they tasted odd. So any tips, advice would be helpful.


Posted by: unbelievable | August 24, 2007 12:22 PM

I know nothing about figs, but I am curious. How do you eat them? With the skin on or do you have to peel?

Posted by: Figless | August 24, 2007 12:56 PM

My aunt told me to get figs in the market (SoCal) that were nearly bursting--that pretty figs weren't so tasty. So, I got her a batch of figs in our farmer's market in Ventura and UPSd them to her in Pasadena. Best gift. Family home in Ala had a fig tree. Brought home coolers full on the plane. Grandmother in Tx made fig preserves using whole figs in syrup in glass.

You eat it all--wash it first, then eat. Some people break them open and eat from the inside. Others them eat like an apple.

Posted by: Fig lover from way back | August 24, 2007 1:32 PM

I've been cutting fresh figs in half (top to bottom) and putting them in a small buttered baking dish. I crowd them and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes....sometimes longer if they don't look "done". I've done 3 batches. For the first, I drizzled them with a little honey. Second batch, drizzled with Grand Marnier. Third batch...I dotted them with a scant amount of butter and spritzed them with lemon juice. Unbelievable. The baking seems to concentrate the flavor.

Posted by: Judy | August 24, 2007 8:09 PM

I've had them dried, and in baked goods like (of course) fig newtons and more local fresh cookies. But I've never had a fresh one. Where do you even get them? I don't remember seeing them at the local Safeway or Giant.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | August 27, 2007 1:38 PM

I have picked up fresh figs both at larger Safeways and at Eastern Market in season. Try slicing them in half and stuffing them with goat cheese. Bake until soft and sprinkle with pistachios and drizzle with honey. Toss over arugula or eat as is. Divine!

Posted by: newsie16 | August 27, 2007 2:57 PM

The house that I purchased in Richmond, VA has a fig tree that has almost doubled in size since I purchased the home almost three years ago (it's about twenty feet high and ten feet wide)...does anyone have any idea where to get some information on care of the tree...how to cut it back, how to protect the fruit from birds and squirrels, etc., etc. I haven't had much luck finding this information on the internet and the local hardware (boxstores) have not been much on the way of assistance.

Thanks for the recipe ideas...any more out there?

Posted by: KevinKaz | August 27, 2007 9:16 PM

I love making pizza with fresh figs. They go well with a mixture of traditional mozzarella and something smoky like gouda. Sometimes tomato sauce, sometimes not. A few fresh herbs, whatever I have on hand. That's about it.

Posted by: Chicago | August 28, 2007 11:23 AM

i heart figs. fresh are best, dried are still good.

fresh: take some quantity of cream cheese and an equal amount of blue cheese. whip together with an electric mixer. slice figs in half, top with a little dollop of creamy blue cheese goo and add a half of a walnut on top. drizzle with a little balsamic if you like.

fresh, italian style: when i lived in florence, a friend's father showed me how to eat figs. take a good ripe fig, split it open, and scoop the goo out, leaving the outer surface behind. spread the goo on a slice of yummy artisinal bread, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle liberally with salt, and eat. best dessert ever.

dried figs: take high quality dried figs and snip into quarters using kitchen shears. bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, and pour over the figs to rehydrate. at the same time, take several onions sliced vertically and carmelize them slowly. as the onions carmelize, toast up thin slices of good bread to a crunchy, crostini texture. once the onions are finished, crumble in 6-8 oz of gorgonzola and let it melt until good and creamy. add the figs, and use to make crostini. you can top these with coarsely chopped walnuts too, if you like. mmmmmmmm!

Posted by: shelley | August 30, 2007 12:35 AM

When I have an overabundance of figs from my trees. I slice them, lay them on parchment paper on a cookie sheet and quick freeze them. Then store in containers in the freezer for later use.
My favorite: a thin crust pizza rubbed with a little olive oil topped with goat cheese , sliced figs and cracked pepper and then baked in a hot oven for about 10 minutes.
Another favorite is to halve figs and spread with soft fudge before it hardens.
Outrageously rich.
I also puree fresh figs and freeze the puree and use it when I want fig ice cream.Any really food commercial vanilla or coffee ice cream will do. Soften it slighlty. Stir in fig puree and return to the freezer until ready to serve.

Posted by: Janet | August 31, 2007 11:37 AM

If you are looking for a really quick and simple recipe for fresh figs try this: Cut your fig into quarters, dollop a large tea spoon of riccota cheese in the middle, then drizzle it with the best clear honey you can afford.
That's it.It's fantastic for breakfast. Enjoy!

Posted by: Woody157 | September 3, 2007 3:35 PM

I looked for figs at the Dupont farmers market last week and didn't see any. Who is selling them now? I've passed by a couple of fig trees in my neighborhood and downtown, but the fruit wasn't ripe in either of them. Does anyone know of a good wild fig spot?

Posted by: sw | September 5, 2007 11:28 AM

Three kids of figs grow well here in San Diego California. There is the green Kadota one can buy canned, Brown Turkey and my favorite Black Mission.
I have dear friend who has a Black Mission fig tree which gives her two crops a year. She keeps the birds off by covering the entire tree with a net.She makes fig jam and uses it as a base for her wonderful, moist holiday fruit cake.

Posted by: Elaine W. | September 6, 2007 11:43 AM

I looooove figs, ever since I was little and would wind myself up the tree to eat its fruit! And as I tell my children it is the fruit from heaven as well as mentioned several times in the Bible. Today I had 2 for breakfast and love them just natural, I will try all the recipes mentioned they sound fantastic too! I picked mine up at Costco. How long does a fig tree take to give fruit?

Posted by: Julia | September 6, 2007 11:53 AM

We top figs with goat cheese or a good blue cheese, wrap in prosciutto, and warm up in the oven - the prosciutto gets a little crispy, and the cheese and figs get soft - MMM! This combo works great on a salad, sandwich, or pizza as well, especially when topped with a honey-balsamic vinaigrette.

Posted by: jp | September 6, 2007 11:55 AM

The following is part of an essay I wrote several years ago (in June)...

Egon's Tree

Today I picked eleven of Egon's figs. They are perfect: small, round, single-bite succulent bits of sweetness. They are rose-colored jewels. Candy.

Egon lived next door in our old neighborhood ... a true sign of his friendship occurred every June when the figs ripened. He had a large fig tree by the side of his house, its branches barely extending into our yard, and during the season, he kept an aluminum ladder parked beneath it. Daily we'd see him climb up and disappear into the tree's foliage. He'd be outfitted in his fig-picking apron (whose pockets were held open by recycled berry boxes inside), and when he'd come down, the pockets would contain those succulent bits of sweetness. On especially good days, when his pockets overflowed, he'd knock on our back door and ask if the children would like some figs......

Time passed and Egon's house was sold... and six years ago when we moved from the old neighborhood, I asked the new owners of Egon's tree if I could take some cuttings. They were happy for me to, so I cut several. Luckily one took root and has thrived.

Egon's tree is in our front yard. Two weeks ago we draped it with overlapping layers of netting, and so far the birds have been foiled. I don't need an aluminum ladder yet to reach its upper branches, but next year I most surely will. When that happens, I hope my neighbors won't mind seeing a shiny ladder parked beneath the tree. On especially good days during the season, however, I'll be sure to knock on their back door and ask if the children would like some figs.... today I didn't share. Today I ate every one of Egon's Figs.

Posted by: agarita | September 6, 2007 12:53 PM

A fig tree is called a ficus? I thought ficus were the evergreen hedge bushes with the very invasive roots. (or the ubiquitous potted plant with the often-braided trunk.)

Posted by: FallsChurch | September 6, 2007 3:28 PM

Back in 1981 I went on a trip to Colombia,
South America with a doctor I was dating at the time. We dined in many fine restuarants in Bogota and Cartagena but
I'll never forget falling in love with the fig at a brunch we went to at a Country Club in Medellin. The figs were served cut in half, open side up with a filling that tasted like a cross between custard and cream cheese and the figs sat upon a type of syrup, maybe some kind of honey syrup. ABSOLUTELY OUT OF THIS WORLD!!

We also were invited to dinner at one of the other physicians home and figs were served for desert (they were always served as desert) and this time they were cut and a mild, slightly soft piece of cheese was placed inside the slit (cut) area. Also great. I guess figs with some type of rich cheese is my favorite.

Posted by: Holly | September 6, 2007 4:17 PM

Fresh figs, wrapped in bacon and grilled (use pre-cooked bacon to make it even easier--no burning)--fast, delicious, different!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 12:17 AM

Does anyone remember the old movie version of Lawrence's "Women In Love"? Lovely sensuous scene with couples at a garden party eating figs.

Posted by: Ellen | September 7, 2007 12:20 AM

I love fresh figs. Our tree grows wonderful here north of San Francisco. I cut fresh figs in half, melt a little butter in a saute pan, put the figs cut side down and saute until the butter starts to bubble and the figs soften, then turn the figs over and put little chunks of gorgonzola (or any blue cheese) on them, and saute until the cheese starts to melt. Wonderful to eat as is & if you want to be decadent put enough butter in to dip pieces of crusty bread in. The fig juices carmelize with the butter & it's yummy!
I also freeze extra figs. I leave them whole & after rinsing put them into plastic freezer bags. Then I use them in my favorite margarita recipe. I use maybe 4 or 5 figs to a blenderful full of margaritas. If you like figs & margaritas, these are really good!

Posted by: Anna | September 7, 2007 12:42 PM

We had a house in New Orleans with a fig tree that was 20'x20' - pruning it back never seemed to make any difference. As far as birds go - they seem to love the figs as much as we do (mice and rats as well unfortunately). If the fruit is bit into just leave it or toss it into your compost. I've heard rumors of netting you can put over your fig tree to discourage the birds but I've never been able to find the netting. It takes some dedication but getting out to your tree daily while the fruit is ripe is the only way to harvest it.
Every year I make a jam out of the figs I pick. I trim the figs of the green part then halve them. I cover the figs with water then boil. I add sugar, lemon, apricot juice, cinamon, and pectin till it tastes just sweet enough and runs off the edge of a metal spoon in 2 streams (keep adding pectin in small amounts till eventually it will do this). Friends just got gifts of jam I made this season.
Katrina destroyed my home and fig tree. We're living in SC now. Had to add Peach Jam this year to my list.

Posted by: Brian | September 10, 2007 8:15 AM

The Fig Tree Grows in Flatbush -- and Little 5 yr old Ace, never having seen a fig before, thought it would be a good idea to pluck them and throw them at the neighbor's back yard. HERESY!!!!

Read about it at:

Now I live in VA and I get my Fig Fix at Whole Foods -- YUM!!! I eat em fresh and/or with SHARP Toe-curling Asiago or RIPE Reggiano Parmegiano cheese.

I like the cookbook "Fig Heaven" too.

My ancient Roman ancestors did the world a GREAT sevice with the Fig tree and the Olive tree. Bella Roma!!!!

The Italian lady down the street from me (I now live in VA) died and a new family moved in to her house and CUT DOWN THE FIG TREE ! DOUBLE HERESY!!

Fig trees should be protected by law, just like Praying Mantises.


Posted by: BronxAce | September 10, 2007 2:49 PM

There are two amazing fig trees at the exxon gas station on lee highway right before key bridge in arlington. The are totally ripe and I think people are picking them at night once the station is closed. I know the owner of the gas station is from Palestine, where figs are everywhere. I'm also of Palestinian descent and growing up in Cleveland, my family had over 4 fig trees in our backyard. My mother would make Fig jam/preserves and of course we would just eat the fruit of the vine, daily. Our 4 fig trees came from one branch given to my parents by our Italian-American neighbors.

Posted by: fig maniac | September 12, 2007 2:41 PM

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