Nearly everybody’s Southern grandma had at least one wide-spreading fig tree, with low branches for the kids to climb and the added bonus of a bumper crop of plump, sweet and gorgeous figs. That is, if Grandma got to them before the birds and squirrels did.
Figs are highly nutritious and packed with high-energy sugars, calcium, fiber, potassium and antioxidants. They are grown worldwide as both food and a lovely ornamental plant. Fig trees tend to attract the eye with their large, hand-shaped leaves and purplish-brown bounty of fruit.
Like so many of our coastal Alabama plants, figs are native to the Middle East and Asia. Most Alabama fig trees are the “common” or “persistent” figs that don’t require pollination to set their fruits, as do other varieties like Smyrna and San Pedros (which are typically grown for the dried fruit market). Ficus carica is a traditional favorite fig tree in the Deep South where they thrive in our coastal Alabama climate. With a single tree in a sunny location, you can enjoy a plentiful crop of figs to share with family and lucky friends.
And the best part? Fig trees are easy to care for. Most of the labor involves the summertime picking of the delicious fruit before it is devoured by birds and other fig-loving critters.
Whether you are fortunate enough to have your own tree or are the benefactor of figs from your neighbor, go ahead and branch out with some new recipes. This favored Southern fruit can — and should — be shared and enjoyed in many, many ways.
Figs that Thrive on the Gulf Coast
Brownish, purple fruit outside and light red inside. Sugary sweet.
Purple outside, white and yellow inside. Mildly sweet; great grilled.
Brown-yellow outside. Classic Southern fig —sweet and sugary.
Purple outside, white and red inside. Sweet, rich flavor; great for preserves.
Brown, violet outside and light red inside. Classic and sweet like candy.
Ways To Enjoy Fresh Figs
Aside from popping figs in your mouth, fresh from the tree, here are a few additional ways to enjoy them:
• Try stuffing fresh figs with almonds and a soft cheese, such as goat, cream or mascarpone, and serve as an appetizer or snack.
• Figs are traditionally prepared as biscuit-topping preserves or relishes. There are a number of recipes that can be embellished by adding cinnamon, cloves or other spices for a new flavor blast.
• Mix chopped figs with onions and hot peppers for a flavorful relish or salsa.
• For a sweet, after-dinner treat, drizzle fresh figs with honey and serve alone or with nuts and cheeses.
• Homemade fig bars, cookies, cakes and tarts will make tasty and healthy desserts or snacks.
• Toss fresh figs with crisp lettuces and other vegetables for a nutritious summer salad.
• Figs can be roasted and used to sweeten the flavor of chicken, pork or lamb. Figs can even be added to pasta dishes and casseroles to add a delicious wow factor.
• Pureed figs can be used to create unusual and tasty cocktail smoothies and other beverages, while poached figs add a luscious topping to ice cream or a slice of pound cake.
Citrusy Fig Preserves
4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups fresh orange juice
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 pounds fresh-picked figs, stems trimmed
zest of one orange
1. Have ready five hot and sterilized half-pint jars and lids.
2. In large saucepan, combine sugar with orange and lemon juices. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add figs and reduce heat to medium. Cook and stir gently for 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer figs to a bowl.
3. Add orange zest to the syrup and cook, uncovered, until reduced by one-third, about 2 – 3 minutes. Return figs to pan and cook for one minute. Use slotted spoon to divide figs evenly among the jars. Ladle syrup over the figs, leaving a quarter inch of headspace. Wipe the rims clean and seal lightly with lids.
4. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Store in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
Master Gardener, Dooley Berry, writes the “Beyond the Garden Gate” column and the “Baldwin Blessings” column for Gulf Coast News in Baldwin County. She lives in Spanish Fort with husband Scott and their mastiff, Happy.