A classic way to enjoy figs is as preserves, and chefs throughout coastal South Carolina make them since the area has a prime climate for bumper fig crops. They start turning ripe in July, and the crop continues through August.
Pastry Chef Tina Spaltro of the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach, with encouragement from Executive Chef James Clark, figured out how to turn a lot of figs into delicious batch of sweetness.
Making the preserves during the late summer of 2009, she says, was a spur-of-the-moment project that turned out well.
"It was just a whim because James went up to Indigo Farms (just over the state line in Calabash, N.C.) and came back with two flats of figs."
Chefs at the Marina Inn are known for their dedication to using fresh locally grown produce, so it was not a surprise when he carried a load of figs into the kitchen.
"They were just available and looked really good, so he bought them," Spaltro said. "It was the end of summer, and they grow around here so well."
Although its sweet sticky delights have been enjoyed for centuries, the fig is one of those foods that cycles onto hot culinary trend lists every few years. This year the fruit is on top again; it was named No. 10 on Nation Restaurant News' list of trendiest produce of 2010.
Figs have thin golden skins. Inside they're pinkish to cranberry-colored and contain a small amount of seeds.
But the pastry chef had never before cooked with fresh figs. She had put dried figs into Almond Cornmeal Cakes and tossed dried figs in balsamic syrup for plate garnishes, but now she had to deal with the off-the-tree version.
"I needed to do something with them," the chef said, "so I said 'Let's make preserves'."
The recipe she came up with for South Carolina Drunken Fig Jam follows, but in the process Chef Spaltro learned a few preserving tips to pass on:
*Soak your canning lids in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes, to soften them.
*When you start canning, the jars and the fruit all need to be hot.
*When filling the jars, leave a half-inch of head space.
*After filling jars, wipe the rims so the seals are tight and sterile.
*Before screwing on the jar rings, be sure the rings are wiped completely dry.
*It is easy to tell if the jars have sealed properly; the button on top of the lid sinks down and you can hear a "pop" when it happens.
*If any jars do not seal properly, put them in the refrigerator and use those first.
Since the canning party, diners at WaterScapes, the restaurant inside the Marina Inn, have enjoyed the fruits of Chef Spaltro's labor. She has been using the preserves on cheese plates, and has thinned the preserves with water to make a pork glaze.
South Carolina Drunken Fig Jam
Pastry Chef Tina Spaltro, WaterScapes at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes, Myrtle Beach, SC
16 quarts fresh figs
16 cups sugar
Lemon peel from 5 lemons
3 cups brandy or cognac
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Rinse and quarter the figs. Toss in sugar with lemon peel, brandy and salt. Let macerate 3 hours at room temperature, stirring once in a while.
Place in large pot and over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium and continue to boil, stirring frequently, until the jam thickens, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Clean and sterilize your jars and rings, and soak your lids in warm water for 15 minutes. Using a canning funnel, fill the jars with the preserves, leaving a half-inch of head space.
Wipe the rims of the jars and top with lids, then screw on rings. Submerge the jars in boiling water and process for 10 minutes. The buttons on the lids should pop and sink down.
Let jars cool and store in a cool, dry pantry. If any jars did not seal properly, put them in the refrigerator right away and use them first.