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Fresh or Dried, Figs Are Nearly Perfect Fruit

Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

Figs, it seems, have been around forever. Adam and Eve were said to have clothed themselves with fig leaves, so one could assume that they were also eating the fruits in the Garden of Eden. Ancient Egyptians knew that figs were an extremely nutritious fruit, and in Greece, the first Olympians not only savored the fruit, but wore them as medals for their achievements.

Originally grown in the warm, semiarid climate of the Mediterranean, figs found their way to California through Spanish missionaries who started planting them in San Diego in the mid-1700s.

Today, almost all commercially grown figs in the United States come from California, where the summers are long and dry. The most common varieties of fresh figs are Black Mission (black or purple skin and pink flesh), Kadota (greenish yellow skin and purple flesh) and Calimyrna (large greenish yellow fruit). Each of the fresh varieties is available during a different period from June through September.

Fresh figs have an incredible flavor, but because they last only about a week after harvest, almost 90% of the world’s fig crop is sold as dried fruit. The nutritional value of dried figs is quite impressive. They have the highest fiber and mineral content of all common fruits, nuts or vegetables. They also have as much as 1,000 times more calcium than other common fruits and by weight they actually have more calcium than skim milk.

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Figs are 80% higher in potassium than bananas, and are extremely easy to digest. They also have more iron than any other of the common fruits and are extremely high in magnesium. All of this for about 20 to 40 calories per fig. No wonder they are often referred to as “nature’s most nearly perfect fruit.”

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Fresh figs are always packed carefully because they are so delicate and need to arrive at the market in good shape. When selecting a fig, pick one with a rich color, that is plump and unbruised, with no broken skin.

Fresh figs should have a mild aroma. If they smell sour, they have started to spoil. They should be soft to the touch but not mushy. If they are starting to dry and look shriveled, they will be especially sweet. When buying packaged dried figs, make sure the wrapper is unbroken. The figs should give a little when you push on them, although overall they should be firm. If you are selecting dried figs in bulk, they should be clean, there should be no mold, and their aroma should be sweet, not sour.

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If you purchase slightly underripe fresh figs, keep them at room temperature away from sunlight and turn them often. Ripe fresh figs should be refrigerated.

Because they bruise so easily, try putting them on a shallow dish, lined with paper towels. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and the figs will be good for two or three days. Dried figs should be wrapped so that they don’t get hard and can then be stored at a cool room temperature or in the refrigerator. They should keep for several months.

To use fresh figs, wash them and take out the hard portion of the stem at the end. Calimyrna figs have thick skins and are usually peeled before eaten. Mission figs have very thin skins and do not need to be peeled. They are fabulous raw, maybe wrapped with a thin slice of prosciutto, but fresh figs may also be baked by piercing the skin a few times, sprinkling them with fruit juice to keep them moist, and putting them in a 300 degree oven for about 20 minutes.

Dried figs are a great stand-alone snack, but they are also extremely versatile and add a lot of flavor and texture to other dishes. The easiest way to chop up figs is to use a pair of scissors. When scissors get sticky, run them under hot water. If you use a knife, rinse it often in hot water during the chopping process.

It also helps to put dried figs in the freezer for an hour to make them easier to slice. Before using dried figs in cake batter or any other kind of dough, coat them in a little flour so they won’t sink to the bottom of the pan.

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The California Fig Advisory Board has provided a list of suggestions for using dried figs in snacks and five recipe ideas.

* Fig Trail Mix: Chop figs and mix with granola, almonds and chocolate chips for a sweet treat.

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* California Rice: Chop figs and add to regular white or brown rice for a deep, nutty flavor.

* Fig Walnut Salad: Slice figs into thin rounds and lay them on top of a bed of mixed greens and walnuts. Drizzle with vinaigrette dressing for a zesty flavor.

* Chocolate Dipped Figs (this is a favorite of ours): Slit side of whole figs and stuff with almonds. Melt semi-sweet chocolate morsels in a pan and dip figs halfway. Let harden completely and enjoy.

* Yogurt Pick Me Up: Add a little variety to nonfat fruit or plain yogurt by adding some chopped figs and a handful of granola. Makes a sweet breakfast or snack.

If you’d like a copy of the five fig recipes developed by the California Fig Advisory Board, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Dale Ogar, managing editor, Wellness Letter, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360. Please mark the envelope “Figs.”


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