What The Hell Do I Do With Unripe Figs?
Ill-gotten figs, boiling in sugar syrup.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
This is the first year that both of my kids are in school, and their daily absence has created a bit of a time vacuum for my wife. Rather than go stir-crazy, she has been spending most of her days volunteering at the school. Trading two kids for 20 may not seem like the way to go, but it seems to suit her. Among the many duties she has taken on around the campus, she found herself the chair of the gardening committee, kindly nominated by a friend who vacated the post this year. She doesn't have much of a green thumb, but is endlessly enthusiastic.
Recently, she organized a community work day, and we spent several hours at the school pulling weeds, raking leaves, and removing ridiculous numbers of dead plants (she tried valiantly to save the landscaping, but the drought took its toll). Our kids, who had begged and begged to come along, promising to work hard and not just goof off all day, goofed off all day. Most of their time was spent on the playground, or eating the donuts we had provided for the volunteers. That is, until my eldest discovered the fig trees.
Unbeknownst to me, she diligently denuded three smallish fig trees lining the playground, plucking their tiny green fruits and gathering them in her pocket. She knows I love figs, and has likely overheard my nefarious plots of thievery, aimed at making those schoolyard figs my own. You know, once they had ripened. She held them out to me excitedly. You could almost see the expectation of praise in her eyes, poor thing.
I let her down gently, explaining that the figs weren't ripe, and were probably more or less inedible. She teared up - I think she was mostly upset that she had wasted them - and she implored me to try to do something with them. She's a sensitive soul.
When I got home, I started doing some research into uses for green figs. I figured I could make some sort of chutney, maybe pickles, but wasn't really sure what I'd find. The thought even crossed my mind that they might actually be inedible, as I know that some people are particularly sensitive to the latex exuded from fig branches and unripe fruit. Luckily, there are tons of ways to use unripe figs, and my ideas had been right on track.
Pickles, chutneys, relishes, and preserves abounded. None of these seemed the right way to go, though, as I wanted my kids to be really excited. Finally, I lit on a reference to Baby Fig Spoon Sweet, basically candied figs in syrup, and decided this was just the ticket. While the recipe provided me with the framework and basic process, I deviated somewhat significantly, tailoring the preparation as I saw fit and based on what I had on hand.
The figs get punctured and run through a successive series of soakings, boilings, and rinsings, all designed to purge the fruit of its latex, I believe. After the purging, I made a thick simple syrup of sugar, water, and lemon juice, and boiled the figs in it. On a whim, I also added a few pink peppercorns and coriander seeds, and the zest of a couple of oranges that were sitting on the table. Figs, spice, and citrus go very well together, so I figured this would add a bit of interest to what seemed like a blandly sweet profile.
The figs sat in their syrup overnight, and then I surprised my daughter with them. She was underwhelmed. So was I. After her disappointment the day before, I had anticipated her eyes lighting up when I unveiled the treats, but was met with a casually noncommittal "cool," instead. Children are mercurial things.
Perhaps they're a bit clairvoyant, as well. When I finally tried the candied figs, my response was about as muted as hers. They weren't bad, but they certainly weren't anything to be excited about. Tasting them with my wife, I commented that they reminded me of what you might expect from green beans dipped in caramel, which is actually not as bad as you might think. The syrup, however, was delicious. It actually picked up a bit of fig flavor, carrying a fruity depth along with highlights of citrus and pungency from the spices.
Since I hate waste, and the disappointment of the
failed fizzled experiment, I have resolved to make use of the syrup. I'm thinking of using it in a cocktail, with a candied fig skewered as garnish. Too bad I won't be sharing it with the well-meaning thief who made it possible.
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