Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Jules gives a fig about (ripe!) figs

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Adriatic Figs bounded by Mission Figs

“The fool looks for figs in winter,” said the 2nd-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.¬†But today, less than a week from the summer solstice, it’s not too soon to set our sights on figs.

California produces 98 percent of figs grown in the U.S., and the first California Mission Fig crop (which is harvested for fresh, rather than dried figs) matures in late June. A second, longer fig season begins toward the end of summer and runs through the fall. 

A fascinating fruit

According to the Valley Fig Growers, a large cooperative in Fresno, California:

  • Fig trees have no blossoms on their branches; instead, figs blossom inward (it’s the tiny blossom that forms¬†inside the fruit that produces the edible seeds)
  • The dark purple figs known as ‘Mission’ figs are so named because¬†priests at Mission San Diego originally planted them in California in 1769
  • Fig Newtons, which were introduced to the U.S. market in 1892, represent the nation’s first commercial fig product (In an April¬†New York Times¬†article reporting on the rebranding of ‘Fig Newtons’ as ‘Newtons,’ we learned that this cookie originated in a bakery in Cambridge, and was named for the city of Newton)

“Nothing beats a fresh fig!”

So asserts Jules’ Owner-Chef Anita Baglaneas, and she should know. Having grown up in a rural village on the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, Anita first-hand and early-on experienced the joys of plucking and eating figs fresh from the tree. “I knew at first touch if the fruit was ripe, because when it was, I barely had to touch the fig to make it drop into my hand!”

“Of course, here in New England,” Anita continued, “it’s not so easy to find properly ripened figs. Too often–even at upscale markets and in pricey restaurants–figs that are offered up as ‘fresh’ and ‘ripe’ turn out to be disappointingly tasteless and hard. At Jules Catering, though, we never serve a fig before its time!”

How do you distinguish ripe from unripe?” we wondered.

“I’ll show you,” Anita replied.

Whole fresh figs, ripe and unripe

The ripe Mission Fig on the left will have some give, when you squeeze it (not so its unripe partner)

Ripe vs. unripe figs

“If you have no choice but to purchase figs in tightly sealed packages that prevent you from ‘copping a feel,’” Anita laughed, “well, then Buyer Beware! Figs don’t ripen off the tree, so to make sure that you get what you pay for, you really need to get in there and very gently squeeze.”

What’s the best way to eat a ripe fig?

“Where I grew up, the custom was to peel figs,” Anita continued. “But when figs are ripe and the skin is tender, it’s absolutely delicious and okay to simply wash figs, cut them in half, and jump right in.”

Anita presents figs

Anita points to figs that are ripe and ready to eat

When Anita subsequently ate the ripe fig (below, left), we asked for her verdict.

Ambrosia!” she exclaimed.

Halved fresh figs, ripe and unripe

On the left, "ambrosia"; on the right, "may be salvaged by baking"

What can we do if the figs we have purchased are less than perfectly ripe?

In response to our query, Anita on-the-spot improvised the following recipe, which she said will “maximize juiciness and concentrate flavors.”¬†

Baked Fig Recipe–Dessert

12 ripe (or, if necessary, not quite ripe) figs
Greek honey
Whipped cream
Hazelnuts

  1. Preheat oven to 400¬į.
  2. With a sharp paring knife, halve the figs from top to bottom.
  3. On a rack in a shallow baking dish place the figs, cut-side up.
  4. Bake the figs for about 20 minutes or until they puff up and look juicy.
  5. Divide the figs into four shallow dessert dishes, add a healthy dollop of whipped cream, sprinkle with hazelnuts, and serve.                                                                  
Yield: Serves: 4
Advance preparation: Figs can be baked several hours ahead.

Baked Fig Variations

“Baked figs are extraordinarily adaptable,” Anita explained. In the above recipe, “Greek yogurt can be substituted for whipped cream, walnut halves or slivered almonds can be substituted for hazelnuts, and of course the number of figs can be tweaked to meet your needs.”¬†
 
“Baked figs can also serve as a savory side to meat or foie gras,” she continued. “Or, place a baked halved fig on a crusty¬†crostini¬†with a slice of prosciutto,¬†drizzle with vinaigrette, and…yum!”

Are figs good for us? 

In moderation, you can’t go wrong!

syrup-of-figs-ad

For a more up-to-date take on the health benefits of figs, we turned to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, which notes that:

  • 8 ounces of figs provide 30 percent of recommended daily fiber
  • Figs are sufficiently high in calcium to promote bone density (eating 1/2 cup of figs offers the same amount of calcium as drinking 1/2 cup of milk)
  • Figs lower both insulin and triglyceride levels

In the classic¬†On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,¬†food scientist¬†Harold McGee writes:¬†”Figs are remarkable for containing very large amounts of phenolic compounds, some of them antioxidants,” and, “certain phenolic compounds appear capable of helping us fight cancer by preventing oxidative damage to DNA-damaging chemicals, and by inhibiting the growth of already cancerous cells.”¬†

Enough about figs! What about fig leaves?

Queen_Victoria

Queen Victoria, 1882

Size matters. At the website for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum we were amused to learn about a 19+-inch fig leaf created circa 1854 for Queen Victoria:

“The story goes¬†that on her first encounter with the cast of [Michelangelo's] ‘David‘ at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then¬†kept in readiness¬†for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks.”

 
 
 
bronze fig leaf

This 19-inch fig leaf was attached to Michelangelo's 'David' in advance of royal visits

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photo Credits:
Ripe vs. Unripe Figs (5 photos): Liz Muir
Syrup of Figs: e-vint.com
Queen Victoria and Fig Leaf: Wikimedia Commons

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“…dishes to whet the appetite”

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Athenaeus, a scholar of food history who lived around 200 AD, observed that¬†”the ancients employed many dishes to whet the appetite.Focusing now on actual dishes–i.e., plates–we couldn’t agree more.

Ancient vessels

On a recent visit to Athens’ other-wordly-wonderful¬†Museum of Cycladic Art,¬†we were fascinated and puzzled by a clay vessel labeled “Frying Pan” and dated¬†2800 to 2300 BC. Delving further we learned that the popular name of this beautiful object relates to the vessel’s shape, not its function. While most of these ancient objects have been discovered in graves, some have also been found in settlements where Cycladic Islanders lived. Many theories about the “frying pan’s” function have been put forth, including one that posits that these exquisitely crafted objects may have served as plates for food.

"Frying Pan" Museum of Cycladic Art Athens

Incised decorations on this "frying pan" are thought to represent the sun and the sea

Also from the Museum of Cycladic Art, but much more recent (dating back “only” to circa 350 B.C.) is a red-figure plate on which food would seem to be superfluous.

Red Figure Plate Museum of Cycladic Art Athens

There's no doubt about what the figures on this plate represent

Ancient recipes

Pondering plates created by people thousands of years ago got us thinking about ancient recipes. So we turned to our bookshelves to check things out. “Antique” cookbooks worth more than a browse include:

  • Ancient Dining¬†by chef, restaurateur, and consultant¬†Maria Loi¬†(described by some as “the Martha Stewart of Greece”) was selected as the official book for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. While Loi’s cookbook is now somewhat hard to find, her food can easily be located at Loi, a restaurant she opened in 2011 on New York’s Upper West Side.
  • The Classical Cookbook,¬†written by historian¬†Andrew Dalby and chef Sally Grainger and published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, is richly illustrated with scenes of food, hunters, and revelers depicted in ancient art.
  • The Glorious Foods of Greece, a compendium of recipes from many regions of Greece collected and described by chef-author Diane Kochilas, kicks off with a chapter on Greece’s culinary lineage that sheds light on the remote origins of Greek food and food lore.
  • The Philospher’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook¬†by food historian Francine Segan offers modern adaptations of dishes originally recorded in ancient sources, including–among others–Plato, Aristotle, and Homer.

A page from Maria Loi's 'Ancient Dining'

 Photo Credits: Liz Muir


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On the second day of Christmas…

Monday, December 26th, 2011

…We found ourselves in Athens! Although we spotted no partridges or turtle doves in the fruit-laden orange trees that line downtown streets and squares, we were struck by the festive sounds and colors of cylindrical bells fashioned from tin cans.

Christmas decorations on orange trees in downtown Athens

Gently tinkling tin-can bells adorn citrus trees in downtown Athens

Also on the second day of Christmas, we tagged along as Jules’ Owner-Chef Anita Baglaneas–always on the lookout for ideas she can adopt or improvise upon when planning catered events back home–roamed Athens streets.

“I’m not at all tech-savvy, but I’m a really visual person and I have a new iPhone,” Anita explained. “So whenever I see something that might even¬†remotely¬†be applied to the business of catering, I stop and point and shoot!”

Anita Baglaneas inspired by Athens' streets

These colorful Athens' street wares caught Anita's eye

Ornamental bouquet of painted pomegranates Athens

Don't be surprised if Jules' table decor reflects Athens' streets

“And I do this in far less exotic places than Athens,” Anita continued. “For example, the other day in a Christmas Tree Shop in Natick I photographed equipment we may decide to use for some other purpose. And I picked up a spice rack constructed like little steps, as a sample to share with Jules’ Event Managers. ‘Would this spice rack work as a vehicle for multi-colored shooter glasses?’ I’ll ask them. “They’re all creative thinkers, so they’re likely to come up with other¬†ideas, but this was what I had in mind.”

Did icy, December branches inspire this sweet table?

Jules Catering sets a nice table, even without fruit-laden branches or plump, painted fruit

Next time we check in with Anita, we’ll be sure to inquire.

Photo Credits: Liz Muir

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