The fig tree in my backyard is close to producing its first real crop since I planted it four years ago. I've been watching its progress anxiously. Every morning before I go to work, I walk by and give one fig a gentle squeeze to see if it's ready yet. The anticipation is nearly killing me.
The first year I planted the tree, we got two figs. One dropped off before it was ripe. When the other was just perfect, I gently plucked it from its branch, cradled it carefully in my open hand and ran inside shouting to my wife, "Honey, our fig is ripe!"
An overreaction? Perhaps, but I don't think so. I love fresh figs beyond all reason.
Every year my crop has grown a little bigger. We had a dozen last year. But this year, the tree is full of fruit. So now I'm sitting here, watching those figs, thinking almost constantly about what I'm going to do with them.
Fresh figs are like tomatoes or peaches: They're so good by themselves that you want to use them very simply. Here are some of my favorite dishes.
Figs with fresh ricotta. Use the best fresh ricotta you can find. If you like, mix it with a fourth cup of mascarpone or crème fraîche for a slightly piquant flavor. Either way, sweeten the ricotta with a little bit of honey. Quarter the figs lengthwise, mound them over the ricotta and drizzle with a little more honey.
Figs in basil syrup. Great with figs that are slightly underripe. Make a simple syrup by boiling 1 cup of water with 11/2 cups of sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, add a couple of tablespoons of slivered basil and pour over figs you've halved lengthwise. When cool, arrange the figs on a platter and drizzle the syrup over the top.
Figs and prosciutto. Halve the figs lengthwise. Cut thinly sliced prosciutto into manageable lengths. Wrap a prosciutto slice around each fig half and secure it with a toothpick. This is killer with a good rosé.
Grilled figs and prosciutto. Wrap the figs with prosciutto as above, then briefly grill, just to crisp the prosciutto slightly and warm the figs through.
Fig and prosciutto salad. Make an arugula salad dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and scatter quartered figs, prosciutto and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano over top. You can also make a figgier variation of this à la Richard Olney by puréeing mint with heavy cream in a mortar and pestle and drizzling that over quartered figs and slivered prosciutto.
Fig tart. Warm 1 cup of raspberry jam in a saucepan, then press it through a strainer to remove the seeds. Brush the base of a pre-baked tart shell with some of the jam. Arrange halved figs in a concentric pattern, and then spoon some of the remaining jam evenly over the top.
Fig and mascarpone tart. Sweeten mascarpone with honey to taste. Use this to fill a pre-baked tart crust. Arrange halved figs over the top in a concentric pattern. Lightly brush the cut sides of the fruit with warmed, strained raspberry jam.
Pork chops with roasted figs. Macerate halved figs with shallots, minced rosemary, Port and red wine vinegar. Brown pork chops in a skillet. Pour off all of the fat, add more Port and reduce that to a syrup. Add some cream and reduce that to a sauce. Arrange the figs with the marinade on top of the pork chops and roast at 400 degrees until the pork chops are cooked through.
Quick-pickled figs. Bring 11/2 cups of water and 11/2 cups of vinegar to a boil with 1 cup sugar, a cinnamon stick, some whole cloves, allspice and black peppercorns. Simmer 10 minutes. Pour the mixture over figs and cool.
Caramelized figs with orange flower water. Halve figs lengthwise. Dip the cut side in sugar and then cook them cut-side down in a heated cast-iron pan until the sugar begins to caramelize. Turn the figs over and cook briefly. Arrange them on a platter. In the cast-iron pan, reduce cream to dissolve any remaining sugar. Remove from heat, add a little orange flower water and drizzle it over the top of the figs. (From Deborah Madison's new edition of "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.")