Much of this recipe easily can be made ahead of time for quick preparation at mealtime. - AP

Fall for figs

It's a great food injustice that so firmly links the word "fig" to "Newton." Even worse is the likelihood that so many Americans taste this fleeting fruit of fall only as a bland, seedy paste in the iconic cookie.

Fresh figs' fragility and short shelf life — which make them ideal candidates for processing — are the most powerful arguments for eating as many as possible now. Local farmers' markets and many backyards will be awash in figs through October.

I'm guilty of filching a few figs through fence lines where the fruit lies neglected under the trees. I had hoped to have my own backyard tree by now, but the seedling I received as a gift froze in the extreme winter of 2009. Ordinarily, figs weather the Rogue Valley's mild winters just fine.

This year's early-summer rains also spurred fig trees to lush growth and abundant fruiting. The harvest of light-skinned fig varieties began earlier in the summer while darker-skinned ones, like Mission figs, take their sweet time to plump up and soften.

You know figs are ready for harvest when birds are tasting them, too. When shopping for figs, keep a discerning eye. Ripe figs are tender but not gushing. Cracks in the skin are a good sign. A little tear of syrup falling from the eye on the bottom indicates a very sweet fig.

When you get figs home, stick them in the refrigerator and plan to eat them as soon as possible. The only figs that need to be peeled are Kadotas, a large, green variety that have a tough, thick skin.

If figs are left to overripen (I've been guilty of this lapse, too), they melt on the stove into a silky sauce or blend beautifully with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing. Simmering figs in simple syrup with lemon zest and a cardamom pod yields a compote that pairs perfectly with Greek yogurt. I've also gotten rave reviews for saucing homemade pizza with cooked and mashed figs and topping the pie with prosciutto and Gorgonzola cheese.

Indeed, pork and cheese are the ingredients that commonly complement figs. Wrap cooked bacon or raw prosciutto around fig halves stuffed with a bit of blue cheese for an effortless appetizer.

A little more refined with only a smidgen more labor are fig bites in pastry. I've long made these with store-bought wonton wrappers, essentially little pasta squares, usually stocked in the refrigerated produce cases of grocery stores. While these have numerous uses, including semi-homemade ravioli, I love them for fitting perfectly into a mini muffin tin, making a crunchy, little vehicle for any manner of sweet or savory fillings, including figs.

Halve about a dozen fresh figs and place them cut-sides down in a medium-hot pan with a few tablespoons of melted butter. When the figs soften a bit, remove them from the pan and deglaze it with a splash of red wine. To that, add a few tablespoons of brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon and pinch of chili powder. Heat until the sugar is melted and the sauce thickened.

Bake the wonton wrappers in the muffin tin at 350 degrees for about seven minutes. Into each cup, spoon about a tablespoon of mascarpone cheese thinned with a little whipping cream and spiced with nutmeg and more cinnamon. Return to the oven until the cheese starts to bubble, about five minutes. Remove from the oven, top each with a fig half and drizzle with some sauce.

Here's a savory variation from The Associated Press that eliminates a step by using mini phyllo cups, which are becoming more available in local grocers' freezer cases.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

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