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Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Food: Give a Fig

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Figs season in the New York area is in full swing. Ted Lee, who wrote the cookbook Simple Fresh Southern along with his brother Matt Lee, says that, in the South, the season for brown turkey figs is just now winding down. He explains that fig trees are common in the backyards of Charleston, South Carolina, where he grew up.

That’s the case in New York, too, where some fig trees can be found tucked away behind homes in Italian and Greek neighborhoods. There’s speculation that immigrants from generations ago were so devoted to the fruit that some smuggled saplings over from the old country.

“The flavor of figs is interesting because it’s sugary first off, but it also has sort of like cola-like notes,” said Lee (pictured below on the left, with Matt Lee). “Also some are creamy and have almost a coconut flavor.”

The flavor differs with the variety and ripeness of the fig. On the East Coast, brown turkey figs are common, whereas the West Coast has more Mission figs.

Whether looking for figs at the farmers' market or in a friend’s backyard, Lee says to check for ripeness by weight and touch. The fruit should feel heavy, and, if it’s still on the tree, it should hang down. He notes that often there will also be a drop of sugary sap at the top or bottom of the fig. Ted and Matt Lee

Lee adds that there’s a good solution for unripe figs: pickle them. They make for a crunchy pickle that’s less sweet than the ripe fruit. Other classic preparations including making preserves or using them in a sauce to accompany pork.

“One recipe we like to make because it involves two Charleston ingredients is Pork Tenderloins with Fig and Madeira Gravy,” said Lee. “You cook the figs down in Madeira, the fortified wine.”

The fruit is so coveted that many tend to share with friends and neighbors. Lee’s friend, a 90-year-old with the largest fig tree in Charleston, puts up hundreds of jars of fig preserves every year — even though the man doesn’t even like figs.

“Growing up in South Carolina, figs are more like an incidental food,” said Lee. “It’s not really something that you might get at the market, it’s something that’s usually handed to you from someone who has a big fig tree in the backyard.”

Below, try a recipe for Fig Preserves from the Lee Brothers' first cookbook. Also learn more on their new Web site.

Fig Preserves
From The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W.W. Norton & Co.)

We don’t know quite what we’d do without fig preserves. Spread over buttered biscuits or a slice of toast, their mellow, winy flavor has brightened up countless mornings. But they also make a wonderful addition to a cheese plate; they’re delicious baked into a cake; and a dollop over store-bought vanilla ice cream is a simple, decadent dessert. And we’ve often wondered why more sandwich makers don’t get hip to fig preserves; they dress up a simple smoked turkey, Swiss cheese, or meatloaf sandwich in a way that few other condiments can. Most of the local figs in Charleston, known as sugar figs, have greenish yellow skins that darken when they’re ripe. They make a lovely preserve that’s the brown color of a bitter-orange marmalade.

Makes 2 1/2 pints
Time: 5 minutes to prepare, 1 2/3 hours to cook, 2 days to blend

Equipment: 2 pint-sized, wide-mouth Ball jars or 1 quart-sized jar and one 10-ounce jar, with rims and lids

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 cups whole ripe figs, stems trimmed
  • 3 small lemons, sliced paper-thin
  • One 1-inch-long piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch rounds

1. Fill a 3-quart pot three-quarters full of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Using tongs, carefully set the jars on their sides, along with their lids and a long-handled metal spoon, in the boiling water to sterilize. Boil for at least 15 minutes, then remove from the water with the tongs or a jar lifter and set aside.

2. In another 3-quart pot, combine the sugar and water and stir to dissolve. Add the figs, lemons, and ginger, cover, and cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring gently, until the liquid comes to a simmer, about 8 minutes.

3. Turn the heat to low and cook for 1 hour, then vent the preserves by tilting the cover slightly into the pan and cook for 30 minutes more, until the mixture is thickly syrupy and the figs are very soft.

4. Transfer the preserves to the jars with the sterilized spoon. Place the lids on the jars, seal, and set aside to cool. Refrigerate for 2 days before using. Fig preserves will keep for about 4 weeks in the refrigerator.