Although dried figs can be purchased year round this is the time of year that the California figs start showing up on the tree and at the markets. The California fig is available from June through September while some European varieties stay available until the end of autumn. Last year my fig tree was a little too young to produce many figs so I am looking forward to a successful harvest this year.

One of my favorite treats growing up was the Fig Newton. I am looking forward to eating the fresh sweet smooth flesh of the fig with the contrast in the crunchy seeds. Figs grow on a Ficus-like tree, a member of the Mulberry family. These trees can grow 40-50 feet tall, although most plants are about 10 feet tall mine is 2 and a half feet. Figs come in a variety of colors based on the specific variety that you are eating or growing. There are more than 150 varieties with the most popular ones being:

• Black Mission: blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh

• Kadota: green skin and purplish flesh

• Calimyrna: greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh

• Brown Turkey: purple skin and red flesh

• Adriatic: the variety most often used to make fig bars, which has a light green skin and pink-tan flesh

Besides having a sweet taste figs are also good for you. They have a lot of dietary fiber and they are very high in potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. Although it is not common in the United States, fig leaves are commonly cooked and eaten around the world. The leaves contain an anti-diabetic property that produces insulin, lowering the need for insulin injections in people suffering from this malady. Very ripe figs also contain large amounts of antioxidants. People with kidney or gall bladder problems might want to limit fig consumption due to a concentration of oxalates that can become crystalized creating health concerns for sufferers. There are only 37 calories in 8 ounces of figs.

Cultivation of figs is generally thought to have been done for a very long time, having been mentioned in the Bible. The cultivation is generally thought to have started in Egypt and to have travelled around the Mediterranean through the sixteenth century. The Spaniard conquerors brought the fruit to the Western Hemisphere in the early sixteenth century and brought them to California during missionary work in the late 1800s.

Since figs are very perishable they should not be purchased more than 2 days ahead of usage. They should have firm stems and be free of bruises. Smelling figs can also help you learn about their freshness and their taste. They should have a mildly sweet fragrance and should not smell sour, which is an indication that they may be spoiled.

Under-ripe figs should be stored at room temperature away from direct sunlight to give them time to finish ripening, but once they are ripe they should be stored in the refrigerator where they will stay for about two days. Ripe figs are very delicate so care should be taken when storing them. Figs should be stored in a covered container so that they do not dry out and to protect them from being crushed or bruised and to help keep out odors from other foods. Dried figs will stay fresh for several months and can either be kept in a cool, dark place or stored in the refrigerator.

Figs should be washed before use and they need to have the stem removed. They can be eaten raw or they can be grilled or poached. Dried figs can be soaked in hot water to help rehydrate them. Since the outside of the fig can be eaten there is no need to peel them, just gently wash them. Figs pair very well with dairy, including basic forms like cream cheese and rich ones like Mascarpone cheese. Figs also pair very well with tree nuts so they can be served with walnuts or almonds. Another tasty pairing is to match figs to cured meats such as prosciutto and salami. Figs can also be added to a pizza with caramelized onions and blue cheese. And of course figs match up nicely with salad greens, maybe with a honey flavored dressing.

Figs also work well in desserts, chocolate covered figs or fig tarts, and this could be served with a fig infused vodka or port wine.