For many of us, our first introduction to figs came from eating Fig Newtons.
If you’ve never actually seen a fresh fig, this fruit — which is actually a flower inverted into itself — has a smooth outer skin, a soft, chewy interior, and a wonderful sweet flavor that complements many foods. Figs have a soft flesh with numerous edible tiny seeds.
Figs, one of the oldest fruits known to man, are good raw or cooked. They were thought to be sacred to ancient civilizations. Before the invention of refined sugars, figs were used as a sweetener. It is believed that Spanish missionaries brought the fig to America in 1520, leading to the name the “mission” fig.
Figs grow well in warm climates and do best in Mediterranean climates, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. There are many varieties of figs, usually available fresh in stores from May through December. Dried figs are available year-round.
Fresh figs are perishable and need to be refrigerated. The skin is fragile and will often have scars from leaves that rub against the fruit during growing, which don’t hurt the flesh inside. Fresh figs will keep for about five to seven days or up to 6 months if frozen.
Nutritionally, 100 grams of fresh figs provide about 74 calories, 3 grams of fiber and 35 milligrams of calcium. One cup of dried figs contains 186 calories, 2 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber and 121 milligrams of calcium.
Figs are considered rich in antioxidants and rank with other high-antioxidant foods such as red wine and green tea. Figs are rich in calcium and are an excellent source for people allergic to milk or for those who are lactose intolerant. The calcium and potassium in figs help to prevent bone thinning and promote bone density. Potassium also helps to maintain blood pressure.
Figs are a great source of dietary fiber, which can be beneficial in weight-management programs as well as helping to control blood glucose. Additionally, the soluble fiber in figs, called pectin, helps in reducing blood cholesterol.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) offers the following recommendations for incorporating figs into your diet:
• Dried figs can be enjoyed fresh from the tree or in prepared dishes.
• Soak a handful of dried figs in balsamic vinegar for one hour. Drain, cut the figs in half, and serve in a salad.
• Soak a handful of dried figs in orange juice for one hour. Drain, dice the figs, and mix with your favorite rice.
• Cut figs in half, drizzle a little honey on each half and top with crumbled pistachio nuts.
• Place a small dollop of goat cheese on halved, fresh figs and place under the broiler on high until the cheese begins to melt.
Instead of cake for dessert, serve a plate of fresh figs with low-fat frozen yogurt or ice cream.
Figs can be incorporated as a snack or included in an entree. They go well with chicken dishes or pasta entrees. For more recipes, visit www.valleyfig.com.
Creamy Baked Four-Cheese and Figs Pasta
This recipe is from Cook’s Country.
Serves 4-6 as a main course, 6-8 as a side.
Bread Crumb Topping
3–4 slices white sandwich bread with crusts, torn into quarters
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pasta and Cheese Recipe
4 ounces fontina cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
3 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (1 ounce)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese (1/2 ounce)
1 cup chopped figs (about 6 ounces)
1 pound penne pasta
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons flour
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. For the topping: Pulse bread in food processor until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. You should have about 1 1/2 cups. Transfer to small bowl; stir in Parmesan, salt and pepper. Set mixture aside.
2. For the pasta: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees.
3. Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in stockpot. Combine cheeses and figs in large bowl; set aside. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water; stir to separate pasta. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat; whisk flour into butter until no lumps remain. Gradually whisk in cream, increase heat to medium, and bring to boil, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 1 minute to ensure that flour cooks. Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper; cover cream mixture to keep hot and set aside. When pasta is very al dente, drain, leaving pasta slightly wet. Add pasta to bowl with cheeses and figs; immediately pour cream mixture over, then cover bowl with foil or large plate and let stand three minutes. Uncover bowl and stir with rubber spatula, scraping bottom of bowl, until cheeses are melted and mixture is thoroughly combined.
4. Transfer pasta to 13-by-9-inch baking dish, then sprinkle evenly with reserved bread crumbs, pressing down lightly. Bake until topping is golden brown, about seven minutes. Serve immediately.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.