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TODAY

Sunday, October 13

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On Friday at the Gapers Block Get-Together, Peter Zelchenko (writer of The Party Line, Gapers Block's weekly newsletter) made a comment that has really resonated with me. He said, "You're an ingredient whore."

My first reaction was to defend my honor, but I decided to think about what he said and defend myself in pixels at a later date. But, I'm sad to tell my mother, I am an ingredient whore. My natural method of cooking is to hit the grocery store, find something that looks good, is cheap, is in season (there is a direct correlation) and buy it and take it home and figure out what to do with it once I get there. You can read last week's column on dates for an example.

And since I've got this newfound revelation, I decided that I may as well accept and revel in it. Not only are dates still available in a variety of formats at local markets, so are figs. It's easy to grow up in Middle America and not have dates. But figs are harder to avoid — although most people are likely to encounter them in Fig Newton format only. But thanks to having a little Italian grandmother-in-law, I was introduced to the joy of freshly frozen figs. Whoa! They're good.

And there are so many varieties of figs that it is hard for me to tell you how to best choose a ripe fig, since they vary in color and texture when they're ripe. Most figs are ripe when they have the texture of a fresh peach without being mushy. And the color can vary from a golden yellow to an overripe banana brown. Any fig will be slightly mushier once it's thawed out than it is fresh.

Figs are also a type of fruit that doesn't ripen once it is removed from the tree. So in order to get ripe figs, they have to be removed from the tree when they're ripe. They'll go bad quickly at room temperature and will last a few days to a week in your refrigerator once you bring them home. But, as Grandma 'Nita showed me, they freeze really well. It's best to wrap each fig in plastic and then place the figs in a plastic bag and place the bag in the freezer.

And while it isn't very common, it is possible to be allergic to the white sap that is a cousin of latex and is present in the stem and occasionally the skin. If you're allergic to latex, you may wish to wear gloves and wash the fruit thoroughly before eating.

Figs are good for you, too. Each fig has about 120 calories, but they have more fiber, more potassium and more calcium than any of the other fruits that you're likely to find at the grocery store year round. If you're trying to quit smoking, you may want to start eating a fig or two a day when you really get the urge to smoke. They're highly alkaline, which means they will help your body fight the urge to smoke. And if you're trying to get tan, you can spread fig paste on your skin since it will promote tanning. In a more realistic scenario, wash your hands after slicing figs in the sun so you don't get odd pigmentation on your hands or wherever else you may touch the fig to yourself.

Oh, and they're tasty, too. If you've only eaten figs in Newtons, then you may be surprised to realize that they're much fruitier than you'd expect from tasting the dried version. They often have peach, floral, mango or plum-like flavors, depending on the variety. And they go well with fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses and so much more. So without further ado, I present to you recipes for Fresh Fig Bread (recipe taken from the California Fig Growers Association), Fig and Prosciutto Appetizer, Pork Kebabs with Red Pepper and Fresh Figs, and Fresh Baked Figs with Mascarpone.

Fresh Fig Bread
1 1/2 cups of fresh figs that have been stemmed and chopped (about 8 figs)
1/4 cup of dry sherry
1 2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup of almonds
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
2 eggs

Preheat your oven 350° F. Put the figs into a small bowl and pour the sherry over top. Let this sit for about 15 minutes. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt. In a separate mixer bowl beat the sugar, oil and eggs. Slowly combine the flour mixture. Stir the figs and sherry in by hand and pour the batter into a well-greased loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the bread feels firm when you press gently on the center. Let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then turn it out onto a rack to cool further. If you like, you can freeze the bread for up to six months.

Fig and Prosciutto Appetizer
1/4 pound of thinly sliced prosciutto slices, cut in half lengthwise
4 fresh figs, washed, stemmed, and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon of high quality olive oil
zest from 1/2 of an orange, minced
1 tablespoon of champagne vinegar
pinch of salt
8 fresh basil leaves, chopped

Wrap each halved slice of prosciutto around a quarter of a fresh fig and place a toothpick to hold the prosciutto in place. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and whip with a fork to combine thoroughly. Place the figs on a plate in a circle. Drizzle the vinagrette over the fruit and then sprinkle the fresh basil overtop and serve immediately.
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer.

Pork Kebabs with Red Pepper and Fresh Figs
1/4 cup of fresh oregano, chopped
Juice from 1 large orange
1/2 cup of olive oil
large pinch of chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
1/2 of a sweet onion
1 pound of pork loin
12 fresh figs, washed and stemmed
1 red bell pepper

Mix the oregano, orange juice, olive oil, thyme and pepper in a bowl. Pour half of it into a sealable plastic bag and reserve the rest for later. Cut the onion into quarters and cut the pork loin into 1-inch squares; try to get 24 pieces. (Keep the pork pieces the same size so they cook evenly on the grill.) Add the onion and the pork to the marinade and toss to combine. Let it sit on the counter for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours. (If you refrigerate this, let it sit out for about 30 minutes to warm up before grilling.)

Cut the figs into halves and cut the pepper into 6 wedges, then cut each wedge into half. Pour the reserved marinade over the figs and peppers and set aside for at least 30 minutes, or up to 4 hours. When you're ready to cook, pour the marinade off the pork and discard. Drain the marinade off the figs and peppers and reserve. Take your skewers and place 4 pieces of pork 2 pieces of fig, 2 pieces of bell pepper and a slice of onion between each ingredient. Place the kebabs on a hot grill over direct heat. Let them cook for about 4 minutes on each side and baste with the remaining marinade before turning. Continue turning and cooking until the center of the meat is no longer pink.
Makes 6 kebabs.

Fresh Baked Figs with Mascarpone
10-12 figs (1 per person)
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons of honey (or agave syrup)
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of tawyn port or a dessert wine
1 cup of mascarpone cheese
1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract
2 teaspoons of honey or agave syrup
sprinkle of ground cinnamon or nutmeg

Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt until it starts to bubble and froth. Remove the stem from the figs and cut them into quarters. Place the figs into the skillet and drizzle with the honey. Shake the pan continuously until the figs are warmed through and coated evenly in honey. This should only take a few minutes. (Stirring or shaking roughly can cause the figs to break apart so be careful). Sprinkle the vinegar and the wine across the figs and shake the pan every 1-2 minutes. Let the figs cook for about 6 more minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Turn off the skillet and let it rest.

In a separate bowl combine the mascarpone, extract and honey. Place this in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve. Place a dollop of cheese on the plate and spoon 4 slices of fig and spoon some of the syrup on top. Sprinkle with a touch of the cinnamon or nutmeg and serve immediately. Serve with a glass of moscat or muscadet for a truly decadent dessert.
Makes 5-6 servings.

The other, very obvious, option is just to cut the stem off a fig, cut into quarters, and squeeze just a slight amount of lemon juice on the top before eating. That's how my adopted nonna does it, and I gotta say they're quite tasty that way, too. Yum!

Do you have an ingredient you'd like me to investigate and provide you lots of options for? If so, send it my way and I'll do my best. I may return to creating full, balanced meals in the future. But for now, I think Peter is right. And I'm OK with him being right.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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