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Vintage California Cuisine: 300 Recipes from the First Cookbooks Published in the Golden State


Robert Wemischner
Los Angeles, Calif.

Books by
Robert Wemischner:

The Vivid Flavors Cookbook : International Recipes from Hot & Spicy to Smoky & Sweet
By Robert Wemischner

Gourmet-To-Go : A Guide for Food Professionals and Retailer's
By Robert Wemischner
and Karen Karp

Seasonal Chefs

Figs Are a Fleeting, Old-World Treat

June 1998 -- It’s a fruit that’s revered among the food cognoscenti and among Old World Italian, Mediterranean types. But Americans have not really embraced it," says cookbook author and culinary arts teacher Robert Wemischner, speaking of the fig.

In the United States, figs are common in dried form, but rarely seen in their fresh state. Their extreme perishability and relatively short harvest season have limited their marketability, placing them in that category of ultra-fragile fruit that you’ll have a better chance of finding at a farmers market than in a supermarket.

Wemischner, who shops regularly at farmers markets in Los Angeles, where he lives, and also keeps in touch with figs through a highly productive tree in his backyard, says he starts seeing them in the market toward the end of July. Their harvest window stays open through September.

"They’re never in great supply. For most growers, they seem to have a few trees as a sideline to their normal business," says Wemischner. But the fact that they are a fleeting, seasonal treat increases their appeal, says Wemischner.

They’re best eaten "with the sun still on them," fresh off the tree, within a day or two of being picked, never having seen the inside of a refrigerator. Those that aren’t consumed right away should be stored in a single layer, without touching each other.

They should be as full to the touch as a water balloon, says Wemischner, but they shouldn’t cross that fine line that separates fully ripe figs from those that have started fermenting.

The most common traditional use for fresh figs is in pastries and tart, chutneys, jams and conserves. But Wemischner, whose first book was The Vivid Flavors Cookbook : International Recipes from Hot & Spicy to Smoky & Sweet, likes savory uses of figs as much as the more traditional dessert treatments.

They go well with the plants that grow around them in their Mediterranean homelands, such as Mediterranean herbs and olive oil, as well as salty cheese, such as feta, and prosciutto ham. Figs also pair well with hot peppers, as in a hot pepper-fig catsup with vinegar and brown sugar.

Four Ways to Prepare Figs

Wemischner offers four other more unconventional suggestions for using fresh figs.


Wemischner cuts figs lengthwise in half, brushes them with olive oil and grills them cut-side down over hot coals for about five minutes, which concentrates their sugars and imparts a smoky flavor. Then he serves them with feta cheese and fresh basil, either as an appetizer or as a side dish for chicken or fish.

Poached in Tea

Fitting for a chef whose next cookbook will be about cooking with tea, he also likes to poach figs half-submerged in Darjeeling tea at a very low simmer for 10 or 15 minutes. "You want very little agitation of the liquid so they hold their shape. Let them cool in that liquid, then take them out serve them with cream that’s been whipped, cultured or thickened in some way," Wemischner says. "That’s a really nice, somewhat different approach. The sweetness is not overpowering in that case."


In another savory treatment of figs, Wemischner braises fatty types of fish, such as swordfish or salmon, on a bed of figs and onions with rosemary and a little garlic, salt, pepper, and enough white wine to moisten the mixture. The liquid left in the pan can be reduced to a sauce.


For a dessert, Wemischner scoops out the insides and freezes the shells. He then purees the pulp with thickened yogurt that’s been drained, in proportions of roughly two parts fig to one part yogurt. He puts that mixture back in the frozen shells and serves them on a plate with a splash of port wine and a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper. "That is an excellent combination of flavors," Wemischner testifies.

Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef