There’s something incredibly sexy about a fig, and it isn’t because Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their privates. No, it’s something about the tree’s galvanic energy, a kinetic presence in the early spring landscape, stirring like any good lust. The bare branches, a sculptural drama throughout our mild winters, sprout intense green buds that quickly unfurl into leaves the size of baseball gloves. The fig tree then sets to its far more time-consuming chore--making an alfresco meal to be enjoyed beneath its cool shadows. Pea-sized green nubbins appear at the junction of branch and leaf, swelling upright and saucy into hard knobs of fruit. Eventually they’ll signal their ripeness by sagging as if to fall into the catcher’s mitts below.
I said eventually. Figs take far too much of the summer to arrive. If their leaves can unfold quicker than an Englishman’s umbrella at the first drop of rain, why must they take so long afterward to compose and deliver their edible selves?
I sit and stare, along with the birds with whom I share the white Genoa figs evolving on my garden tree, watching for the first sign of softening and droop, anticipating their honeyed pink evanescence. To paraphrase the Supremes: You can’t hurry figs; you just have to wait.
It’s an ancient ritual. “No thing great is created suddenly . . . " wrote the Greek philosopher Epictetus sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries. “If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” Epictetus could have carved this in stone--he certainly had the time while he was waiting on figs. Buddha meditated all the way to Nirvana while reclining beneath a fig tree. Spanish missionaries were the first to plant figs in California. I suspect their building frenzy was born of an effort to keep busy while waiting on the oh-so-slowly maturing crop. California now produces virtually all of the commercially grown figs in this country. But getting a fresh crop to market is no less time-consuming and painstaking than it’s ever been. Figs must ripen on the tree and then be transported as delicately as eggs to prevent bruising or spoiling. No wonder most of them end up dried or, even worse, derided as Fig Newtons.
Twenty years ago, one California produce expert put figs on his personal list of endangered commercial fruits (along with rhubarb, currants and crab apples). Thankfully, fresh figs are back and waiting to be found in the markets, both farmers and super, but only when they’re good and ready. Blink and either the birds or other shoppers will get them, leaving you to eat dried figs for another year.
Once you find them, fresh figs can be used in desserts, but I prefer them plain or paired with something savory such as prosciutto. This fresh fig anchoyade frames their delicate sweetness with garlic’s pungency and a salty hint of anchovy mellowed by cinnamon and nutmeg. Served on pan-roasted sea bass, it tastes like an Indian summer evening at the shore.
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Pan-Roasted Sea Bass with Fig Anchoyade
2 to 3 anchovy fillets
1/2 small clove garlic
1/2 pound fresh figs, about 4
Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 4-ounce sea bass fillets
Salt and pepper to taste
* Fig Anchoyade: Soak anchovies in cold water for few minutes to reduce saltiness. Wipe dry. In food processor, mince garlic, then add figs and anchovies and puree. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Anchoyade can be made day ahead and refrigerated. (It is also good as hors d’oeuvre on bread spread with goat cheese or moistened with olive oil and topped with chopped onions.)
* Sea bass: Over medium heat, combine butter and olive oil in large saute pan and brown fish fillets on each side, 4 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper during cooking. After few minutes on second side, spoon layer of warmed fig anchoyade onto each fillet. If fish is still pink or translucent inside, cover pan, reduce heat and cook until fish is completely opaque, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness of fillet.*
Food stylist: Christine Masterson