(Nov. 24) Two revered delicacies of bygone days still occupy a place of distinction in some of today’s most prestigious restaurants.

Figs, from a tree once held sacred in Egypt, Greece, Italy and Southwest Asia, and dates, sometimes called “the fruit of kings,” remain frequent choices of chefs desiring to add an air of sophistication to appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts.

BEYOND FIG NEWTONS

In ancient times, figs were used medicinally. They probably were one of the first fruits to be dried and stored and are the most-mentioned fruit in the Bible.

A natural enzyme in figs aids digestion, while the fig’s high alkaline level could benefit those trying to quit smoking. The fruit also contains a natural chemical that helps extend freshness and adds moisture to baked products, according to the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno.

Though the fruit originated in the Mediterranean region, California ranks No. 2 in world fig production. Domestic fresh figs are available from late summer to early fall, with dried versions available year-round.

Consider the versatility of the primitive, often-overlooked fruit.

Joshua Perkins, executive chef at Brasserie Le Coze, Atlanta, is comfortable with figs and makes a simple fig sauce to drizzle over duck. He sautés figs in butter with a bit of fleur de sel (sea salt) until the figs soften. Then he deglazes the sauce with creme de cassis.

Perkins, who encourages chefs to be creative with figs, also makes fig compote from stewed figs and sugar as the bottom layer of the restaurant’s red berry gelatin dessert.

George Bumbaris, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, frequently cooks with figs. In one dish, he halves two figs roasted with balsamic vinegar and herbs and drizzles them with a port wine reduction. He serves them on the side with a salad featuring Roquefort cheese. The figs provide a sweetness that goes well with the Roquefort and salad, he says.

For banquets, Bumbaris reconstitutes dried figs by cooking them with red wine, brandy and port. He serves the mixture, which turns somewhat syrupy, as a warm accompaniment with Camembert cheese and croutons in a tossed salad. He especially likes the flavor combination of port wine with figs, he says.

Chris Prosperi, chef-owner at Metro Bis in Simsbury, Conn., is proud of his pear and poached fig tart. He cores, peels and halves a pear from top to bottom and pipes into the cavity a mixture of chopped poached figs and candied walnuts with a little mascarpone cheese. Then he spreads 1 ounce of caramel sauce on the bottom of a 4-ounce aluminum tin and places the stuffed pear halves on top with a puff pastry disk on top of that. He bakes it at 375 F. As the pear finishes baking, the pastry turns perfectly brown. Before it’s completely baked, he flips it onto a rack, he says.

Perkins of Brasserie Le Coze says fresh figs, which he buys in 30-pound flats from area farmers, are versatile and easy to prepare, but they must be perfectly ripe. “Once they get too soft, they’re almost impossible to work with,” he says. He uses fresh figs in season and later switches to dried figs as compotes and sauces or to add flavor, but not as a center-of-the-plate item.

DATES BACK

Dates also date back to the cradle of civilization and came to the U.S. in the early 1900s to become a moist, flavorful addition to many dishes and sauces.

Fresh dates are available from late August through September and add moisture to dishes since they have a 20% to 24% moisture content.

Growers freeze dates, which makes them available year-round, says Dwight Hurst, marketing consultant for the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association, Bard, Calif. The frozen ones come out as delectable and fresh as new-crop dates, he says.

Refrigerating dates gives the fruit a 60-day shelf life, compared to about 35 days if they are stored at room temperature. They also can be refrozen, Hurst says.

Though there are many date varieties with unique characteristics, the medjool date is one of the most popular.

The variety makes a fine accompaniment for a cheese course or as a puree with a duck liver appetizer, says Bumbaris of the Ritz-Carlton.

To soften the dates and remove the skin and pits, he steams them with warm water or soaks them in alcohol like wine or cognac. The dates can be mashed to any consistency, from chunky to a smooth puree. He serves them as a condiment with duck liver or with a toasted brioche.

Celebrity chef Martin Yan, who has a cooking show on the Public Broadcasting Service, says many chefs use medjool dates as appetizers because they are big enough to cut open and they have a large cavity that can be stuffed with cream cheese. They also can be cut in half or in strips and tossed into a salad. “They have wonderful flavor and texture contrast,” he says.

He also uses dates in stir-fry dishes and drops them into his oxtail casserole to add sweetness and flavor when it’s almost finished cooking.

Dates also are good in stews and desserts like date cakes and bread pudding.

Since they are large — usually at least 2 inches long — medjool dates are easy to handle and they have a consistent shape, Yan says.

Pete Luckett owner of Pete’s Frootique retail store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and host of “The Food Hunter” on the Food Network in Canada and the U.S., says that except for special occasions, dates have yet to be discovered by many chefs.

Some of Luckett’s favorite offerings that features dates are tangines — dishes that combine fruit and meat and are common in North African countries like Algeria and Morocco.

“Quince, dates, figs and apricots together in a tangine are pretty fantastic,” he says. They can be combined in a casserole with lamb, chicken or pork.

“They’re quite beautiful,” he says. “It’s an unusual combination for North American palates.”

FIG FAVORITES

There are hundreds of fig varieties. Here are a few of the most popular:

Adriatic — The most prolific of all the varieties, it retains its high sugar content as the fruit dries to a golden shade. It’s the prime choice for fig bars and pastes.
Calimyrna — Noted for its delicious nutlike flavor and tender, golden skin, this California version of the Smyrna variety is the favorite for eating out of hand.Kadota — This American version of the Italian dattato variety is thick-skinned and nearly seedless, with a creamy amber color when ripe. It’s a favorite for canning, preserving and drying.
Mission — The popular variety has a distinctive flavor and deep purple shade, which darkens to rich black when dried. It works well in most recipes.
Source: California Fig Advisory Board