Savoring homegrown figs
A Good Appetite: Fig trees produce soft, purple fruit that can be eaten by the handful, tossed into salads or threaded onto a skewer. Recipes: Lamb and Fig Kebabs with Honey and Rosemary, and Fig-Hazelnut Financiers.
The New York Times
NEW YORK — This morning, I grabbed a bowl from the cabinet, went outside and picked my breakfast of fresh figs.
No, I'm not vacationing near the Mediterranean coast. Nor am I in California or the South. I'm at home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where the fig tree in my tiny garden is covered in ripening fruit.
I've had the tree for 15 years, but when the figs arrive, it still seems like a miracle. As a lifelong New Yorker, harvesting fruit off my own tree wasn't something I expected would become a late-summer rite.
But it has, and there is nothing that compares to that simple pleasure of pulling a piece of soft purple fruit off a tree branch in my own backyard, especially when the backyard is only a stone's throw from the chaos of Flatbush Avenue. Although I can still hear delivery trucks idling, sirens shrieking and cars honking, the fig tree makes me feel at least momentarily connected to the earth.
Planting the tree was my Italian-American mother-in-law's idea. When I moved into the brownstone in 1997, she regaled me with stories of fig trees all over Brooklyn. Potted fig trees thriving on patios in Park Slope. Fig trees tucked in postage-stamp yards in Dyker Heights. Fig trees spreading out regally in gardens in Bay Ridge. They were especially abundant in Carroll Gardens, where everyone with a spare foot of soil grew a lush tree that bore enough fruit to share with friends and relatives.
Fig trees are easy to grow, she assured me. So when I spotted a scrawny Ficus carica (Brown Turkey fig) for sale at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I took it home and planted it in a halved bourbon barrel in the sunniest part of the yard, dreaming of a future of fig tarts.
My sapling turned out to be part of a long Brooklyn fig tree tradition.
While there are fig trees growing all over the five boroughs, they are predominantly in Brooklyn, said Annie Hauck-Lawson, an authority on New York City food culture and history, because Brooklyn had a large influx of Italians from the beginning of the 20th century until World War II.
They arrived in America bearing cuttings, explained Michele Scicolone, a writer specializing in Italian-American culinary traditions.
"There were certain plants that were iconic to Italian immigrants, and the fig was one of them," she said. "They could take a branch from a fig tree back home, let it go dormant during the long boat journey, then plant it when they got here, and it would grow."
Her own grandparents in Bensonhurst had fig trees and a white peach tree that her grandmother claimed came from Procida, the island off Naples where the family was from.
In Carroll Gardens, Tony DiDio's grandfather Biagio planted a fig tree in 1940 in homage to his Sicilian roots. The tree, now cared for by DiDio, is a treasured part of their family tradition.
"Every August," he said, "all anyone in my family talks about is the tree.'How are the figs doing?' they all ask me. The tree is like a member of the family."
Biagio was so invested in the figs that once they started to ripen, he would sit in the backyard with a can filled with stones. When birds came near the tree, he'd shake the can to scare them away.
He also wrapped the tree's trunk and covered its roots each winter.
"My grandfather used to say that the tree doesn't know it's in Brooklyn," DiDio said. "It thinks it's in Sicily, so he covered it in the winter so the snow wouldn't give it away."
Wrapping fig trees remains a winter chore for many gardeners in the city. But it may not be necessary unless the plant is very exposed, according to Caleb Leech, the curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's herb garden.
In fact, the very elements of the city that would make it seem inhospitable to fig trees — the brick and concrete that define New York — actually help the trees thrive in cold weather. All that brick and concrete contributes to raised ambient temperatures (the urban heat island effect), and the walls of brownstone gardens can protect plantings from the elements.
Leech added that fig trees are forgiving; if they die in winter, they can come back from the roots and bear fruit.
I can vouch for this. That first winter, I wrapped my fig tree in old blankets, giving it a bucket for a hat. In spring, I unwrapped the tree. Everything else in the garden flourished. The mint and lemon balm grew tall and fragrant. The roses budded. But the poor fig tree remained adamantly brown, and I was scared I had killed it.
Finally, in June, I gave up hope and lopped off the branches to stake my tomatoes. Then in July, I noticed that my tomato stakes were pushing out leaves, and the stump in the barrel had started to grow. Suddenly, instead of one fig tree, I had six.
I kept the hardiest of the lot and gave the others away. Now, my tree is laden with darkening fruit, branches bending under the weight. Every year the yield increases. First I got two figs, then five, then 20. Now it's too many to count.
At the beginning, I just ate the few precious figs as fast as I could pick them, savoring every honeyed bite. They taste best still warm from the sun, their thick skins bursting with luscious red flesh and crunchy seeds.
Eventually I started experimenting, adding them to salads, crostini, tarts and cakes. Two of my favorite recipes involve threading figs onto skewers with marinated lamb chunks and grilling them, and tucking fig slices into the moist French hazelnut confections called financiers.
This has been a particularly good year for Brooklyn figs. In Park Slope, Cynthia Lindberg is "drowning in figs," she said. She planted her tree in 1997, the same year I did, saying it reminded her of her grandmothers' gardens in North Carolina. Her harvest is large enough to share with neighbors and still have plenty to make into jam.
"It's such a luxury to be able to pick figs from your own backyard," she said.
DiDio has already gathered enough figs to wrap in prosciutto and to toss into pasta with a raw sauce of tomatoes, corn and great olive oil. He would very much like to share the bounty with everyone on his block — except that many of his neighbors have their own ancestral trees.
"And this is Brooklyn," he marveled. "It's pretty incredible."
LAMB AND FIG KEBABS WITH HONEY AND ROSEMARY
Time: 20 minutes, plus marinating time
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 large sprigs rosemary, leaves minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 ¼ teaspoons coarse kosher salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce or soy sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 large ripe figs
1 ½ pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch chunks
Chopped fresh mint leaves, for serving
Lemon wedges, for serving
1. If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes. (You don't need to soak metal skewers. If you are broiling the kebabs instead of grilling, skewers are optional.)
2. In a large bowl, toss together garlic, rosemary, lemon juice, honey, salt, pepper and fish sauce, and stir well to dissolve the salt. Stir in oil.
3. Thread the figs on skewers; if you are not using skewers, spread the figs on a baking sheet. Make sure the figs don't touch one another. Brush with some of the rosemary marinade and set the figs aside.
4. Add lamb to the bowl with remaining marinade and toss well. If you have time, let the lamb marinate in the refrigerator for several hours or at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
5. Light the grill or heat the broiler. Thread the lamb on skewers or spread on a baking sheet, leaving room between the pieces to get more of a char. Grill or broil kebabs for 3 to 5 minutes, turning them once. (If broiling, cook as close to the heating element as possible. You don't need to turn them.)
6. Sprinkle lamb with fresh mint, then serve lamb and figs with lemon wedges.
Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 9 cakes
½ cup butter (1 stick), extra for greasing pan
155 grams confectioners' sugar (1 ¼ cups)
56 grams hazelnut flour (1/2 cup)
40 grams all-purpose flour (1/3 cup)
Pinch of salt
4 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ripe figs
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a small saucepan, melt butter, cooking until it turns nut brown and smells toasted, about 5 minutes. Pour into a heatproof bowl and let cool. (Do not scrape up any black bits from the bottom of the pot.)
2. In a large bowl, combine sugar, hazelnut flour, all-purpose flour and salt. Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and set on low speed (or use a whisk and a strong arm), beat in egg whites until flour mixture is damp. Add butter and beat on medium-high speed (or vigorously by hand) until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla. At this point, the batter can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.
3. Trim stems off figs and slice each one crosswise into 3 rounds; you will have 9 fig rounds.
4. Butter and flour 9 half-cup muffin cups. Divide batter between cups and top each with a slice of fig. Bake until golden brown and the tops spring back when lightly pressed, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before unmolding.