Sunday, August 17, 2003

Serve it this week: FIGS

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

History: Man has been eating figs since at least 3,000 B.C. They were a favored fruit among the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Spanish Franciscan missionaries introduced fig trees to southern California (where most of the country's figs are grown today) in the 18th century. Hence, the popular California variety called "Mission" figs.

Buy: Fresh figs are generally available June through October. Common varieties include green-skinned, white fleshed Adriatic; pear-shaped, violet to brown-skinned Brown Turkey; large, squat white-fleshed, green-skinned Calimyrna and purple-black Mission. Figs are ready to eat when they're soft to the touch with a bit of resistance.

Store: Fresh figs are extremely perishable. Store in refrigerator between layers of paper towels and use within three days.

Serve: Wrap fresh figs in thinly sliced prosciutto as an appetizer, roast with duck, bake as a dessert or serve uncooked with cheese.

Good for you: Figs are a good source of iron, calcium and phosphorus.

Baked Figs with Ricotta

6 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup sweet or dry marsala

8 fresh figs, stemmed

6 tablespoons ricotta or mascarpone cheese (about 2 ounces)

6 tablespoons heavy cream or milk

1 teaspoon sugar

Shaved bittersweet chocolate (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar and 1/2 cup water in saucepan; bring to boil, cover and cook until sugar dissolves and syrup reduces to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Stir in marsala and remove from heat.

Quarter figs from the top down almost to, but not through, the bottoms. Press up from the bottom to spread figs open like "flowers" and place in a shallow baking dish.

Spoon marsala syrup over figs. Bake until figs are tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, mash together ricotta, cream and 1 teaspoon sugar. When figs are done, place them in serving dishes and dab some of the cheese mixture into the center of each fig. Spoon syrup around. Serve warm or at room temperature and garnish with shaved chocolate. Makes 4 servings.

Joy of Cooking (Scribner; $30)

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