Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Spotlight Food - Figs...
Fig season is in full force now, and I don’t know about you but I’m pretty ecstatic! I love everything about figs from their sweet taste, to their smooth flesh, and their crunchy seeds. They’re such a unique and mysterious fruit, with a wonderfully complex yet hard to describe flavor. Bold yet subtle at the same time. The only thing I don’t like about figs is their ridiculously short window of availability. Dried figs of course are available year round, and they too are delicious, but nothing beats a ripe fresh fig. Their season however only lasts from June until October, and in my neck of the woods I don’t usually see them for sale before Mid-August. If I’m lucky they hang around until early November but usually they’re gone by mid October. So I have to take advantage of them when I see them.
I know a lot of people who say they don’t like figs. Yet I wonder how many of us have really sat down and given figs a fair shake. Still I know even more people who claim to have never even eaten a fig before and I can’t help but wonder, why? I know that before my transition into vegetarianism I’d never truly eaten a fig. For whatever reason they just weren’t a part of my families food culture, and therefor hadn’t made it on to my radar. I’d had fig flavored things of course, mainly processed ‘bar’s and ‘cookies’ none of which I really cared for, but I’d never actually eaten an honest to goddess plain fresh fig, nor a dried one for that matter. In fact, I may never have eaten a fig at all were it not for an intriguing recipe I found while reading one of my very first Vegan cookbooks. As I’ve mentioned before I have a habit of making dishes that call for an assortment of ingredients that sound strange combined together. I have an even bigger habit of making any dish that contains an ingredient I have either never eaten or never heard of. So in typical fashion after happening upon said recipe I promptly went out and bought myself a pound of fresh figs, and a 2 pound bag of dried. I was very lucky that I found this recipe just as September was bleeding into October otherwise I’d of had to wait another year to try fresh figs.
Needless to say It was love at first bite. They’re just so unusual. Their flavor and texture so completely different then anything else I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t believe I’d never tried them before. Figs have held a strong cultural importance over the ages, and feature strongly In many mythologies and religions, because of this I almost feel that by biting into a fresh ripe fig I’m biting into history. Now my passion for figs is endless. I always keep my pantry well stocked with the dried variety - Black Mission being my favorite - but when fig season rolls around I am in a state of bliss! I am on a constant and never ending search for new and exciting ways to enjoy my beloved fruit. If you have never eaten a fig, you most certainly should! Even if you think you don’t like them. Just give figs a chance!
Figs are the fruit of the Ficus tree, a deciduous tree native to Southwest Asia, and the Mediterranean Region. The edible figs is thought to be one of the first plats cultivated by humans. In the Neolithic village of Gilgal l (In the Jordan Valley north of Jericho) nine subfossil figs were found dating back to 9400-9200. This find predates the domestication of wheat, barley, and legumes by one thousand years and may possibly be the first known instance of agriculture. From there figs spread to Ancient Egypt, Crete, Greece and Rome, where they became staples in the traditional diet, as well as revered as a sacred fruit and symbol.
The fig tree is sacred to the Greek God Dionysus, and appears frequently in stories of Greek, Roman and Religious mythology. The fig tree is referred to many times throughout the Bible, most notably in the book of Genesis where Adam and Eve use the leaves from the fig tree to cover their genitals. Forever crystalizing the fig leaf as a symbol of modesty. The fig/fig tree is also mentioned in the Qur’an as well as Hindu, Jainist and Buddhist texts. In fact it was under the Bodhi tree - A large, old, sacred fig tree - that the Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment.
Though figs had been enjoyed for centuries throughout the Mediterranean, The Middle East, Asia and North Africa, it wasn’t until the 16th century that they found their way to the Western Hemisphere, by way of Spanish explorers. In the late 19th century upon establishing a mission in San Diego, California Spanish Missionaries also planted fig trees. However the trees planted were inferior to those in Europe and so it wasn’t until the 20th century after further development of cultivation techniques that California began heavily cultivating and processing figs. Today California remains one of the largest producing regions of figs, along with Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Figs are one of the highest plant sources of Calcium. According to the USDA data for Black Mission variety figs, the dried figs are richest in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium and vitamin K.
Since figs are such a good source of potassium they have the ability to help lower high blood pressure. Not eating enough fruits and vegetables, combined with eating the typical high-sodium diet typical of so many Americans can create a potassium deficiency. A person who has a low intake of potassium coupled with a high intake of sodium has a much greater chance of developing hypertension. Since potassium is a mineral that helps control blood pressure, it’s important to remember to make figs and other potassium rich foods a regular part of your daily diet.
Figs are also an incredibly good source of fiber, and like prunes have a natural laxative effect, which is helpful for weight management. Studies have shown that woman who increased their fiber intake with supplements significantly decreased their energy intake, yet their hunger scores did not change. Meaning figs and other high fiber foods are a better more effective way to increase fiber, loose weight and stave off those hunger cravings.
Fruit and cereal fibers have also been shown to help protect against postmenopausal breast cancer. Results of a study involving 51, 823 woman over a period of 8 ½ years showed a 34% reduction in breast cancer risk for those consuming the most fruit fiber compared to those consuming the least.
Figs are a great source of calcium and as such they promote bone density. Subsequently since they’re also a good source of potassium they may counteract the increased urinary calcium loss caused by a high sodium diet. Which will help to prevent bones from thinning out at such a fast rate.
Interestingly fig leaves have also become a recent topic of interest. You may not have thought the leaves of the fig tree were something worth eating, but in many cultures fig leaves are a common part of the cuisine. Studies are now showing that fig leaves have anti-diabetic properties and can actually reduce the amount of insulin needed by persons with diabetes who require insulin injections.
In animal studies fig leaves have also been shown to lower the triglyceride levels in the blood. While in vitro studies have shown fig leaves to inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer cells. However researchers have not yet determined exactly which substance in fig leaves could be responsible for their remarkable healing effects, as further studies need be conducted.
Fruit is also important in protecting against macular degeneration which is the primary cause of vision loss in older adults. It’s reported that 3 or more servings of fruit daily can help reduce your risk of age related macular degeneration by 36%
So as with all of my previous spotlight foods figs are not only a delicious nutrient packed food but a beneficial one as well! Not to mention biting into a fresh ripe fig is a nice change of pace from chowing down on the typical banana or apple. It’s good to keep things interesting.
Personally my favorite way to eat figs is just plain, by themselves. I like to snack on fresh figs, or dried ones. However another great thing to do with either fresh or dried is make your own home made fig bars, cookies, cakes, pies, or tarts. You can stuff and/or roast fresh figs with almonds and cashew cream to serve as an appetizer. Figs go particularly well in spinach, kale or arugula salads. You can blend fresh figs with some oil, vinegar and fresh herbs to make a nice salad dressing or marinade. You can poach fresh figs in wine or juice to serve with non-dairy yogurt or non-dairy ice cream. You can include dried figs to your morning oatmeal, granola, or cereal. You can include them in trail mix. You can make fig jam, salsa or spread, for crackers or bread. You can make fig bread either with dried or fresh figs. You can top off a bowl of non-dairy yogurt with some nuts and dried or fresh figs.
There is a lot you can do with these little gems, if you’re willing to get creative. I suggest you get to know your figs and don’t be afraid to try something new! Enjoy!
Happy and Healthy Eating to you!