THE FIG TREES and I have been battling for months. Their branches have been working me over whenever I park the car on the parking pad behind our house, within reach of the trees.
Last winter one of the trees, covered in a protective blanket of burlap and weighed down by a record snowfall, leaned over and snapped a car antenna. Since May, when the leaves bloomed, the rough undersides of the leaves have been slapping me in the face as I squeeze past them.
Now, however, I am beginning to reap the rewards of staying in this difficult relationship. Fresh purple figs are showing up on the branches of these trees. Feasting on them has put me in deep-purple bliss. With their voluptuous shape, high sugar content and remarkable texture, fresh figs are so sensual that associating with them seems sinful.
Picking them seems to be an R-rated experience. When they ripen, the exterior of these figs, which I believe are called Mission Figs, turn from green to a deep purple, and eventually turn almost black. You can't, however, judge their readiness by color alone. You have to feel them. Texture is important. These figs are at the peak of flavor when they are almost squishy soft.
So recently I have amused myself by going out in the backyard, and feeling the figs. I begin the process by ogling the fruit. I look at the shape and size of the dark figs. If a fig looks especially promising, I squeeze it. I have learned that the softer the fig, the sweeter the flavor. Some figs are so ripe, so ready, they fall into in my hands when I pinch them. If they are firm to my touch, I let them stay on the branch a few more days until they are more yielding.
I am not the only one in pursuit of these figs. Birds have their eyes on the fruit as well. In previous years, when the total harvest from our backyard fig trees has been as low as a few dozen figs, the birds have ended up enjoying more of the fruit than I have.
But this year the figs are more numerous. And, so far, I have been faster to attack them than the birds.
A recent afternoon pawing through the fig leaves left me with a lapful of fresh fruit. The kids tried a few, but were not that interested. That meant my wife and I had the remaining figs to ourselves.
First we ate a few raw. They were delicious. It is rare to find a fruit that is this sweet without being juicy. Then we ate a few stuffed with feta cheese. This sweet and slightly salty combination was also delightful.
Next I skewered a few, and cooked them for about 4 minutes on the barbecue grill, and served them as an appetizer, with grilled red peppers and grilled eggplant. Cooking them on the grill didn't change the flavor, but made them warm, thus adding another sensual thrill.
Finally I wrapped a few in basil leaves and prosciutto and grilled them. What a treat.
When we finished, I couldn't wait to go back and feel, I mean pick, a few more figs.
Grilled figs wrapped in prosciutto
Makes 16 hors d'oeuvres
4 fresh figs, quartered lengthwise
16 basil leaves
lTC 8 slices of thin prosciutto ham, about 1/4 pound, sliced in half
Place a fig quarter and a basil leaf on each slice of prosciutto and roll up prosciutto. Cover and refrigerate before cooking, up to 6 hours.
Prepare coals for grilling.
Brush the rolls lightly with olive oil and grill over medium fire until the prosciutto is barely browned at the edges and the fig is warmed throughout. This takes about a minute or two per side, depending on the heat of the fire. (If it tastes too salty, you have cooked it too long.)
"Nicole Routhier's Fruit Cookbook," (Workman Publishing, 1996, $16)
Pub Date: 8/28/96