The end of summer in Los Angeles can sneak up on you, the heat lingering, even rising, the days stalling out into a blissful torpor. Then suddenly it's Labor Day and the school buses and USC Trojan linemen are on the move, and you look into the market stalls and those glorious ripe figs have vanished along with your vacation time.
So grab up the baskets of sweet dusky Black Mission figs, mild Brown Turkey figs, pale green Kadotas with their soft mauve interiors. Take them down from their branches if you're the lucky proprietor of a backyard tree or pick them up from the farmers markets or grocery produce aisles. For the next few weeks, figs will be as ubiquitous as late-season tomatoes.
They'll be pretty spectacular too. After a summer of slow heat and almost overwhelming dryness, the region may be a bit parched, but this season's figs are outstanding.
Tree-ripened, their sugars built by the final weeks of summer, figs are most flavorful when they're near the end of their season. Unlike dried figs, sturdy and familiar, fresh figs are also surprisingly ephemeral. Their soft, leathery skin, which houses a system of tiny florets -- it's not really a fruit, but an inverted flower -- is delicate, and fully ripened figs should be eaten quickly. Left for even a few days, their rich interior can lose flavor and get woody in texture.
Fabled to have grown in the Garden of Eden, the fig has a beautiful, secretive architecture and a rich, low flavor that makes it a nearly perfect dessert. Eaten alone, just off the tree, its taste is subtle, almost cool. Halved and placed on a plate, maybe drizzled with honey, a splash of balsamic vinegar or served with a nub of young goat cheese or assertive blue, the fig is magnificent.
Wrapped with prosciutto, grilled and tossed into a frisée and walnut salad or poached in red wine, figs pair equally well with sweet and savory dishes. Or, for a stunning display, layer a mascarpone tart with slices of sweet Black Mission figs, the lush purple and pale magenta colors of the fig like an edible palette, the sweet notes of the figs balanced by the sheen and faint bite of a balsamic glaze.
"Nothing is sweeter than figs," observed Aristophanes. Especially now, when they're at their peak, their flavors concentrating in the closing weeks of summer. Just don't wait too long.