Figs, both fresh and dried, contain important nutrients

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The fig is one of the earliest food trees thought to have originated in the Mediterranean. The tree is said to be an ancient one and has been valued for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Figs are eaten fresh, dried or roasted; they have also been used as a remedy and as a sweetening agent in food.

Figs, characterized by their sweet flavor and soft texture, consist of a pliable skin enclosing a sweet, even softer, fleshy interior filled with edible seeds.

The fig, both fresh and dried, contains important nutrients, with dried figs having more nutrients, being higher in calories and an excellent source of potassium, as well as being a good source of iron, magnesium and copper than fresh figs. Fresh figs are an exceptional source of fiber because of the tiny seeds that fill the fruit, as well as the source of some potassium. Their high fiber content helps to aid digestion and promote heart health, with their soluble pectin fiber helping to lower cholesterol levels.

In the market, there are hundreds of fig varieties, but only about half a dozen are grown commercially in the United States, with California being the only important fig-growing state.

The most common commercial varieties include:

- The black fig, which is sweet and rather dry and is not as perishable as the others;

- The green fig, which is a thin skinned and juicy variety;

- The purple fig, which is the juiciest and sweetest of the three, also the most perishable and is relatively rare.

The other varieties of figs:

- Adriatic - this Mediterranean transplant has a high sugar content, making it a favorite for drying and using in fig bars and fig pastes. The fresh fig has light green skin and pale pink flesh.

- Black Mission - named for the mission fathers who introduced the fruit to California, the Black Mission has dark purple skin (which deepens to black when dried) and pink flesh.

- Brown Turkey - this fig, with purplish skin and red flesh, is sold fresh and dried.

- Calimyrna - has large greenish-yellow flesh. Calimyrna is the California version of the Smyrna. In their dried form, Calimyrnas have a delicious nutlike flavor and tender, golden skin, making them the most popular dried form to eat out of hand.

- Kadota - the Kadota has greenish-yellow skin and purple flesh and is practically seedless (making it a favorite with those who make fig preserves). It dries to a light golden color.

- Smyrna - this is the same fig as the Calimyrna. The only difference is that the Calimyrna is grown in California and other Smyrnas are not.

Fresh figs do not keep well, making their season very short. However, the figs grown in this country are available from June through September.

A "fancy" produce item, fresh figs are packed carefully and should be in good condition when displayed in the market. Figs' color differs with varieties, but healthy figs will always have a rich color; ripe Mission figs, for example, will be nearly black. Look for shapely, plump figs with unbruised, unbroken skins and a mild fragrance; a sour smell indicates spoilage. They should be just soft to the touch but not mushy. If the figs seem somewhat shriveled, as if they are beginning to dry, they will be particularly sweet. Size is not an indicator of quality, but you'll probably want to choose uniformly sized fruits if you are planning to serve them as individual portions for dessert.

To ripen slightly under-ripe figs, place them on a plate at room temperature, away from sunlight, and turn them frequently. Keep ripe fresh figs in the refrigerator. Wash fresh figs, and remove the hard portion of the stem end. Halve or quarter your fruit. Thick-skinned Calimyrna figs are usually peeled. Mission figs do not need to be; they have thin edible skins.

Once harvested, fresh figs last only about a week. Dried figs are also a good source of vitamin B-6, vitamin E, potassium and antioxidant phytochemicals. Dried figs are higher in calories than fresh because 90 percent of them are derived from natural sugar. Dried figs can be stored at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator; just be sure that they are well wrapped after opening so that they do not become too dry and hard.

If you are going to cook them, place figs in the freezer for an hour to make them easier to slice. When you are chopping dried figs, dip the knife into hot water from time to time, to prevent the fruit from sticking. Before using chopped figs in batters, you need to toss the pieces with a little flour to keep them from sinking to the bottom.

When you are reconstituting dried figs, simmer them in boiling water, wine or fruit juice for 2 minutes; add a drop of almond extract and enjoy.