Saturday, October 22, 2016

Long live the new fig tree

I have seldom been accused of excess optimism, but how else could you explain my purchase of another fig tree?

To recap: when I was a lass growing up in the Rockaways, my next-door neighbors had a lush fig tree whose bounty spread to our side of the fence. They were happy -- and we were even happier -- to share. As an adult with an apartment and a balcony, I succumbed to a somewhat improbable hope to grow a fig tree on my balcony. I bought a sapling from the Union Square Greenmarket, kept my hopes up and watched the tree grow taller and sprout more leaves. My little tree didn't bear fruit, but that was fine. I still harbored hope. At the end of the season, I carefully wrapped it in the loving manner of New York's Italian and Greek immigrants who tended to their fig trees in Williamsburg and Astoria circa 1920.

But no matter, Fig Tree I bit the dust, a victim of a frost that massacred many other tender young fig trees. My little guy seemed more vulnerable as a balcony baby, but my sister's fig trees, one a native Brooklynite and the other a companion to mine from the Greenmarket. both planted in in an actual garden, also died.

In a recent column that featured fig recipes, the New York Times food writer Melissa Clark wrote that her figs were store-bought, because her own fig tree had been felled by frost. Oh no! I remember an earlier description of an enviably hardy and fecund tree, which she had raised from its beginnings as a scrawny specimen.

And if the legendary Clark fig tree had succumbed, shouldn't I pull the plug on my own fig tree dreams?

Despite my misgivings, a small fig tree caught my eye in the Greenmarket this summer. It had two small figlets growing at its base. "I'm guaranteed at least two figs even if this tree dies too," I thought, justifying the purchase. Once relocated in a nice big planter, the fruit promptly dried up and fell off the tree. 

The tree itself, however, continue to grow. It's now double the height and triple the width it was at the time of purchase.  I'm already planning its super-duper winter wardrobe to guard against murderous frost.

There are no signs of fruit, but I am vowing to take the long-term perspective. Once fig trees start producing fruit, they can bear fruit for decades.

Besides, succulent fruit aren't fig trees only offerings. It turns out that the leaves, with their "fruity flavor and distinct coconut aroma" have many fans too. You can find recipes for hunks of protein grilled and baked in fig leaves and Tuscan potato torta baked on fig leavesFig leaf ice cream. (And fig leaf ice cream, Hungarian style.) Fig leaves used as a seasoning ingredient for preserves or liqueurs. Fig leaf dolmas and koubebia (the dolma's Cypriot counterpart) made with fig leaves. Rice simmered with a fig leaf on top won this accolade:
Brilliant. It was one of those things that had never occurred to me. Added to a pot of simmering grains, the fig leaf imparts a subtle flavor and perfume to the entire pot. The best way I can describe it - a bit green, and a bit nutty. But more like raw pepitas than walnuts. And coconut, but green coconut. There are some of those notes as well.

And if none of these ideas inspire, Halloween is around the corner. Maybe some of my friends would want to go as Adam and Eve.

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