Monday, September 24, 2007

Figs, Proscutto and Fall

It's officially my favorite season of the year. Fall arrived here in San Diego with a definite change of weather. We actually had rain! Practically unheard of at this time of the year, actually, and no doubt there will be more summer ahead....but for a few days, we got a taste of crisp air, dark, muscular clouds..... and rain. And it is the season for one of the oddest fruits we have in North America -- one that people usually love or hate. A fruit of biblical stature, (well, the leaves anyway), and one which many people find embarrassing to eat.

Well, perhaps I should start by clarifying something. Actually, the fig isn't a fruit. According to Wikipedia, the fig is commonly thought of as fruit, but it is properly the flower of the fig tree. It is in fact a false fruit or multiple fruit, in which the flowers and seeds grow together to form a single mass. What is commonly called the "fruit" of a fig is actually a specialized structure- or accessory fruit- called a syconium: an involuted (nearly closed) receptacle with many small flowers arranged on the inner surface. Thus the actual flowers of the fig are unseen unless the fig is cut open. The syconium often has a bulbous shape with a small opening at the distal end that allows access by pollinators. The flowers are pollinated by very small wasps that crawl through the opening in search of a suitable place to reproduce (lay eggs). Without this pollinator service fig trees cannot reproduce by seed. In turn, the flowers provide a safe haven and nourishment for the next generation of wasps.

Now, I know that could sound fairly disgusting. The "Ick" factor rises with such an explanation. But that could be said about much of the food we eat - vegetarian or otherwise - if we stop to think about it. My personal approach is to not think about such things in the face of something as sweet and sensual as a fig. Do you remember that incredible scene in "Women In Love", where one of the characters gives a speech on how to eat a fig? It was, of course, pure Henry Miller: an unabashed discourse on sensual pleasure.

My favorite way to eat a fig has been to buy as much prosciutto di Parma as my wallet will allow, and to indulge myself by wrapping, cushioning or just encasing chunks of those jammy purple morsels in sheer strips of prosciutto. The saltiness of the prosciutto is the perfect balance for the fig. A friend of mine recently told me of a fig dish he made with blue cheese baked inside. That sounds positively decadent to me - a must try! And Jenn over at The Leftover Queen made a fabulous sounding dish with figs and Parmesan cheese a few weeks ago.

There's a fig tree in my neighborhood. When the previous owners of the house still lived there, the tree was allowed to grow over the sidewalk. True, the purple blotches on the concrete made for a trickier walk, but I was in heaven. The tree was on the way to Little Italy, and so I would first go to my favorite Italian grocery store and stock up on prosciutto. Then, on the way home, I would load up my grocery bags with figs. My riches would last me for about 5 days or so, and then, like an addict in search of my next "fix", I'd head back down to Little Italy. In this manner, I gorged myself on figs and prosciutto for breakfast every day until I could no longer reach any more ripe figs.

Now the house has been sold, and the new owners have trimmed it back. It is no longer accessible from the street. So I must buy my figs from the store. Yes, they can taste as good, but the adventure of it has gone.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tomatoes and a season of heavenly delights

If there was ever a reason to have a garden, or to visit a farmer's market or a vegetable stand on the side of the road, it's to enjoy the taste of garden fresh tomatoes. Vine ripened tomatoes from a garden have the power to make me grow sentimental. To me, they are the essence of nostalgia - of a time gone by. I have little interest in those genetically altered red round things they sell in grocery stores. To me, a tomato must taste of the sun, or it's not a tomato. I have no problem with canned tomatoes, or tomato sauces - they are a completely different animal. But if I'm going to eat a fresh tomato, I need it to be real. (Translation: Fresh from the garden.) When it is, I'm in heaven. And this is my season of heavenly delights.

But let me explain where it all began. My father was an avid gardener, and a gentle, loving soul. He used to say, "If you're good to the earth, the earth will be good to you." The tomatoes he grew were one example of the truth of his words. With compost, water, and loving attention, my father grew beautiful, sweet tomatoes, which had the power to lure us into the garden no matter what else might be planned for the day. We used to come home from school and head straight for the garden, barely pausing to say hello to my mom. Morton Salt used to make tiny little salt shakers in those days - perfect for kids to carry in their lunch boxes. (I don't know if lunch boxes still exist. Or tiny Morton Salt shakers, for that matter.) We'd take our salt shakers out to the garden and feast on fresh-picked tomatoes until there were no more red ones left on the vines. My last post (oh so long ago!) featured tomato tarts. This one will be much, much simpler. Today's post is for those times when you have tomatoes to die for, and you don't want to bury their taste under anything, and you don't want to cook them -- you just want to showcase them. Plain and simple. What better to do than to serve them with sliced mozzarella, fresh basil, and some extra virgin olive oil? Just add salt and pepper. Ahhhhhh.......The tomatoes in today's post are from my friend Julie's garden in New Mexico. I spent an extra long Labor Day weekend in New Mexico, painting my living room and enjoying the company of friends. Julie came over one evening with a plastic grocery bag partially filled with tomatoes. I actually packed these in hard plastic containers and put them in my suitcase! They survived the baggage handling, and have been a small treasure trove ever since.

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