A world away from the dried version often found on grocers’ shelves with which most Americans are familiar, fresh figs — with their smooth skin, bright pink flesh and delicate seeds — have a luscious flavor and complex texture unlike any other fruit.
With the first of two fig seasons upon us, fig-loving chefs are putting on the menu or planning to serve in late summer or early fall this gem of a fruit as a standalone or a complement to other flavors in savory and sweet dishes.
Among them is Mike Ward, executive chef of The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., who prizes fresh figs not only for their sweet and savory applications, but also for their heralding in the great bounty that is to come.
“At the point when the early season black mission figs turn up, stone fruits have already been around for a few weeks,” Ward said. “Stone fruits like cherries, peaches and nectarines, along with the figs, are the greatest fruits of the season not only because of their flavors, but their appearance and flavors set the stage for where the bounty of the rest of the season is going.”
Ward’s favorite way to use late spring and early summer black mission figs is in a mostarda, or fruit condiment. To make fig mostarda, Ward combines the fruit with a little salt and sugar; mixes it with nectarines, plums or cherries to add some variety; and leaves the fruit to macerate overnight. He repeats the process several times and then folds in whole-grain mustard and vinegar. The mostarda is used in a variety of dishes, such as smoked duck breast, smoked heritage Berkshire pork chop and salmon, or as a condiment on charcuterie platters or cheese plates.
With last fall’s fig harvest, Amir Hajimaleki, chef and owner of District Kitchen + Cocktails in Austin, Texas, made fig and burrata naan and fig panzanella with cranberry walnut bread.
“Figs are surprisingly versatile,” Hajimaleki said. “They have a meaty texture, delicious sweet flavor, and can be grilled and seared, or pickled and dried to use in off seasons.”
This all, Hajimaleki plans to grill fresh figs and pair them with local honey and blue cheese, as well dark chocolate and aged balsamic ice cream.
Figs are a favorite fruit of Pat Pascarella, executive chef of The White Bull in Atlanta, who grew up with a fig tree in his yard and says he loved trying to pair the fruit with new things.
This summer at White Bull, Pascarella plans to use figs all over his menu. Among the fig-laden dishes planned are sweet corn gelato with cornbread crumbs, figs and vincotto (a fig vinegar); roasted fig toast with stracciatella, charred onions, cashews and UGA caviar; New York strip steak with bone marrow and figs; and fig leaf pappardelle with rabbit ragu, patty pan squash and SarVecchio cheese.
Honey-roasted, peak-of-the-season figs with housemade limoncello cream, Italian Fabbri Amarene (a mix of whole cherries and cherry syrup) and toasted almonds are on the menu at the recently opened Che Figata, an Italian spot in Naperville, Ill.
“Figs lend the perfect notes of savory and sweet. There is nothing quite like their unique taste and texture,” said Che Figata executive chef and founder Mark Grimes. “Whether raw or cooked, I enjoy seeing how these small fruits come alive in appetizers, entrees and desserts at Che Figata, particularly with our Fichi e Limoncello, because they absorb so much flavor.”