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Making Peace With Figs

When Creatively Cooked, the Fruit's Sweet and Intense Flavor Can Convert Its Biggest Skeptics

September 01, 2002|CAROLYNN CARRENO

My mother near-worshipped the dozen avocado trees that grew on our land when I was growing up. She more than tolerated the apricot, apple and mango trees. But without any shame and for no other reason than a skin-deep, didn't-like-its-leaves reason, she turned a discriminating mind--and the sharp end of a hatchet--toward the fig tree. She didn't know it at the time, but this act had grave significance. The fig was considered by the ancients to be a symbol of peace.

My mother hacked down our Black Mission fig tree. It grew back. She tackled it again, and the tree grew back again. She repeated this process unsuccessfully before turning to the guy digging a hole for a swimming pool, who dumped a boulder he'd unearthed on the site where the tree refused to die. Months later, the branches of that hardy fig tree found their way up through the ground and around that boulder so that the tree grew back like some crazy upside-down spider. My mother lost the war, and she came to despise the black, mushy fruit that continuously littered the ground around the pool.

The fig is one of the oldest fruits known to man and one of the sweetest. Figs are indigenous to Asia, Africa and Turkey. The fruit was brought to North America--to Southern California specifically--in the 1500s by Franciscan monks who set up missions from San Diego to Sonoma, thus the name of California's most popular fresh fig, the Black Mission.

I like to think that, with the progress of generations, I am less prejudiced than my mother. When I see figs in stores and at farmers' markets, all neatly lined up and strapped into their green half-pint boxes with a red elastic net, I want to take them home, just to prove the point that all fruits are equal. However, until recently, I didn't have the first idea how to cook with them. Kevin Driscoll, a fig vendor at the Santa Monica farmers' market, suggested I call a ''fig ambassador.'' He assured me that Azmin Ghahreman, executive chef at the St. Regis Monarch Resort in Dana Point, did ''the most amazing things with figs.'' Turns out Ghahreman also grew up with a fig tree in his backyard in Iran. Conversely, his mother awaited fig season, which in California runs mid-summer to early fall, with delight. Ghahreman and his siblings plucked the tree-ripened fruit and popped them into their mouths like candy. And Ghahreman's mother gave him a healthy respect for--and creative hand with--figs.

At his suggestion, I tried different approaches--drizzling figs with honey, baking them in a tart, and reducing the fruit and a squeeze of lemon juice, sugar and vanilla into a jam with a deep seedy intensity. Best of all, one sublime bite of Ghahreman's prosciutto-wrapped figs, served with a gorgonzola cream sauce, convinced me that the fruit is capable of bringing peace to all people, even my fig-fearing mother.

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Prosciutto Wrapped Figs with Blue Cheese Cream

(Adapted from a recipe by Azmin Ghahreman, St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa, Dana Point)

Serves 4-6

6 ripe figs (preferably Black Mission)

6 thinly sliced pieces of prosciutto

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese, such as gorgonzola (plus extra for garnish)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Several sprigs of chervil, optional

Wrap prosciutto around figs. Bring cream to a simmer. Slowly whisk in cheese until it is dissolved, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside.

Place wrapped figs in a heated saute pan with olive oil and pan fry until lightly crisp and soft to the touch, about 2 minutes on each side. (Note: If fig is still firm, it wasn't ripe enough. Place in a 350-degree oven for an additional five minutes.) Remove figs from pan. Cover the bottom of a bowl or rimmed plate with sauce. Place figs in bowl or on plate and crumble additional blue cheese over them. and chervil for color. Garnish with chervil sprigs. Serve hot.

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Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about fava beans.

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