Roasted Fig Preserves with Lemon and Thyme

This is what a lush, ripe Brown Turkey fig looks like. Notice the stretch marks. That means it is bursting with flavor.

During fig season, I can see these dark, plump jewels sunning themselves on the tree from every vantage point in my backyard. First, they tempt and then they taunt me until I finally find myself risking life and limb to get to them. Often, I  have to climb a ladder and use a long garden tool like a bow rake to grab and pull down a limb, and then reach even further to pluck one from a branch. This all happens first thing in the morning while the outside temperatures are still tolerable. My friend Linda calls it #pajamagardening.

There are others who desire the same figs. I am in constant competition with small birds, the squirrels in the neighborhood, and my chickens. They know they can eat figs to their heart’s content without fear of being seen by predatory hawks when under the canopy of the broad, palmate-shaped fig leaves.

Here’s a video of one of my chickens reaching for a fig. It is best watched in full screen mode. My friend Carrington calls it #rubberchicken.

 

Ina would use the big leaves to line a cheese platter. Just sayin’.

Growing Figs

Fig trees are native to tropical climates, but a few varieties, such as Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, have been cultivated to grow in cooler climes (zones 6-11). We planted our tree in front of a southern-facing brick wall so the heat stored in the bricks could warm the tree during winter. Additionally, and this was purely happenstance, our air-conditioner’s condensate pipe drips over the roots all summer long keeping the tree well-hydrated.

Our fig production and access capabilities quadrupled after I pruned the tallest limbs by almost half last March. Later, in April, my husband fertilized the roots with chicken manure. Now the tree is shaped like a sprawling ball and is loaded with figs.

Everything you wanted to know about fig reproduction, but were afraid to ask.

One of my hobbies is studying plant reproduction. All fruits and vegetables start with a flower that once pollinated starts to grow a pod with either one seed in it, like a peach, or many seeds, such as apples and tomatoes. Botanically, the seed pod is known as an ovary. Aggravating as it may feel when a squirrel or chipmunk runs off with a peach or a tomato you have patiently watched ripen, they are doing what nature intended — they are dispersing seeds. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we like our fruits and vegetables. She cares about plant reproduction and species survival.

With that in mind, the first thing I noticed when my tree started producing fruit was the absence of flowers. This photo was taken on April 7th as fig pods and leaves appeared. The pods emerged from the branches but were never preceded by a flower.

This begged the question, How does the fig reproduce without flowers? It turns out the flowers are inside the fig. Hundreds of them! The color inside a fig comes from its flowers.

Last summer, the producer and host of Nashville Public Television’s The Volunteer Gardener came to my garden to film a segment featuring Jeremy Lekich, an expert on edible landscapes and owner of Nashville Foodscapes.   In the show, Jeremy takes viewers around my yard and introduces them to many unusual edibles and explains fig pollination. You can watch the segment here.

By virtue of where the flowers are located, pollination needs to take place inside the fig. To move pollen from a male fig to a female requires the presence of specialized fig wasps who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with figs. The wasps get a place to reproduce and the figs get access to highly specific pollinators. I found this awesome video that shows how microscopic wasps crawl into figs. This other video from PBS’s Gross Science takes it from there describing what happens next in reproduction.

New varieties of common figs, like my Brown Turkey, have been cultivated to not need a wasp for pollination. The female trees are asexual, and the seeds produced are not viable — they are empty seeds. You will see lots of them when we finally get around to cooking the figs!

Every Christmas I make my grandmother’s Sicilian fig cookies. The recipe calls for dried Calimyrna figs. Calimyrnas are a Californian cultivar of the Turkish Smyrna fig (Calimyrna = California + Smyrna) that does require a wasp for pollination. They produce “true seeds” — seeds that are viable for reproduction. Fertile seeds are thick and crunchy, and have a nutty flavor preferred by bakers. They are the figs used to make Fig Newtons.

How to Make Fig Preserves

I cooked many not-so-delicious batches of fig preserves  on the stove before it occurred to me to try roasting them with herbs as I do my strawberry jam. The results were amazing. Roasting intensified the depth of flavor exponentially. They were so good, I took all my reject batches, mixed them together, and roasted two trays for about an hour. Suddenly, they were all tastier, too.

Ingredients:

4-5 pounds fresh figs (12 cups, once stemmed and quartered)*
5 cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
one bunch of thyme sprigs (⅓ ounce) or 3-4 long stems of fresh rosemary

*Today, I saw four varieties of figs for sale at Trader Joe’s!

Instructions:

Remove stems and quarter figs.

Place in a lightly-greased heavy-bottomed pot.

Add sugar and acids and stir. The amount of sugar sounds like a lot, but you need sugar to preserve fruit. Acids help fruit release its naturally occurring pectin. Once mixed, place in refrigerator and allow to macerate for a minimum of two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 175º. Add thyme or rosemary and simmer on low heat for about twenty minutes. If using thyme, strip leaves before stirring in. If using rosemary, do not strip leaves; leave stems intact and remove before bottling.

Pour hot figs into two rimmed sheet pans and roast for about 4-5 hours.

One way to tell if they have cooked long enough to gel once cooled is to draw a path through the figs and see if the two sides stay separated. If they do, they are ready. You should be able to smell them if they are sufficiently roasted. If you overcook them, they will become thick and gummy when cool. Better to undercook than to overcook.

Pour hot preserves into clean jars, wipe the rims, cover with screw top lids, and turn upside down while they cool. I store them in the fridge, where they should be good for two months.,

I’ll end this story with one last video of my chickens eating figs in the early morning hours.

 

What are my favorite ways to enjoy fig preserves?

By the spoonful — just out of the oven.

My cousin, Marion, served the fig preserves over a delicious blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses called Rochetta. It was delish. As soon as I got home, I bought a similar cheese called La Tur at Whole Foods.

I often have fig preserves spread over Homemade Ricotta on toast for breakfast, or I’ll make an almond butter and fig sandwich for lunch.

I love brie and fig paninis. Hard to get a photo of the finished product with these crazy-good sandwiches, though.

Please let me know if you make the preserves!

Related Posts:
How to Make Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta
Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam
Homemade Grape Jelly
Crab Apple Jelly

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

How to Make Plant-Based Dyes

This is a story about how one thing led to another.

In April 2015, I wrote a post about using vegetables to make homemade dyes for Easter eggs. It seemed like everyone on Instagram was doing it and I wanted in on the action. You can read about it here. It was exciting to produce gorgeous colorful dyes from “scratch.”

These are the colors I made by boiling vegetables in water.
Red/Purple cabbage produced the blue color. That was a nice surprise!
Yellow onion skins made the orange.
Red onion skins made the brownish-red color.
Red beets made the deep fuschia.

One analogous cooking tip I was able to learn from this egg-dyeing project was that yellow-skinned onions impart a nicer golden color to a pot of chicken stock than red onions.

Over the years, I invited my nieces over to dye eggs and we added ground turmeric to the mix. It produced yellow eggs.

I used some of the eggs in these Italian Easter bread baskets, a recipe I need to post!

One year, I didn’t make vegetable dyes and instead used powdered indigo I had purchased for another project to over-dye already colored eggs. I loved the different shades of blue that resulted. The commercial dye was lightfast, too, meaning the colors didn’t fade the way many of the eggs did.

This past February, while touring a block-printing factory in Jaipur, India, I learned from a young man named Ali, that their factory printed with natural dyes made from plants like tomatoes, pomegranates, turmeric, sugar cane, and indigo.

My takeaway was that you could pretty much make fabric dyes from anything that ever stained your clothes, aprons, or dish towels while you cooked.

Two months later, Easter 2018, was the year I went a little cuckoo with the egg dyes. I poked through my kitchen spices, vegetable bins, backyard garden (found daffodils and forsythia), and the grocery store, looking for foods and flowers I could potentially use to make dyes. In the end, I chose pomegranates, dark grapes, blueberries, tomatoes, cranberry juice, red cabbage, spinach, turmeric, yellow and red onion skins, paprika, apple skins, used coffee grounds, daffodils, forsythia, and tulips.

I was all in.

Crazy as this all seems, I got into the zone on this project. I laid down a long sheet of brown paper and filled fifteen bowls with food and flower samples, some of which I had pre-cooked. I couldn’t cook them all because I didn’t have enough pots or time.

I filled each bowl with boiling water and let the materials meld for a few hours. Afterward, I mashed the plant materials in each bowl, heated them in the microwave, and strained out the pulp.
 

I added hot, medium-sized, hard-boiled, white eggs into the strained warm liquid and let them sit for a while longer.

The results were mixed. Some of the dyes produced rich dark colors, some were pale, some were lightfast, some were not. My favorite new colors were a lovely chartreuse from the pomegranate, a golden yellow-brown from the daffodils and forsythia, a pretty mocha-brown from the coffee grounds, and a light orange from the paprika.

While I used the dyes for eggs, in my head I was thinking about how they might dye fabric. I could see how some of the colors in the swatch below could be created from the colorful dyes I had made over the years.

 

Making Dye from Indigo Plants

In my garden, I am growing a patch of indigo and hoping that this will be the year I finally try my hand at making dye. There are many complicated steps involved, including the addition of chemicals in calculated amounts and resting periods, all of which have kept me from taking the time to focus and learn how to do it.

Today, I signed up for a class at Hill & Hollow Farm in Breeding, KY, to learn how; how to harvest indigo leaves and create dye. When I went to sign up for the class, I realized I had bought my first indigo plants from Hill and Hollow at their booth at the Nashville Farmers Market. I started with four plants and those plants have self-seeded to create the plot I have now. It was an omen. Stay tuned for that post.

Coincidently, in May, my artist friend, Tallu Quinn, showed me how to make patterned blue and white fabric squares using an ancient dyeing technique known as Shibori. That process will be described in another story, too. As a teaser, here is a photo of the still wet squares we dyed.

Working on this Shibori project with Tallu sealed the learning-how-to-make-indigo-dye deal for me. Once the fabric squares are sewn together for a quilt, a group wedding gift, I will write a post.

Like I wrote in the beginning, one thing led to another.

Related Posts
Learning How to Block Print in Jaipur (India, Part 2)
To Dye For: Making Naturally Dyed Easter Eggs
Morning Rounds in the Garden, July
How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Eulogy for a Chicken

Treating our baby chicks like pets and naming them seemed like a good idea. At first. They were cute and cuddly like pets, and they kept us entertained with their constant chirping and the adorable way in which they climbed over one another to get to their food. We had fun choosing names for that first flock, too: the two brunette Plymouth Barred Rocks were named for my Sicilian grandmothers, Marion and Concetta, the blonde Buff Orpingtons for Hubby’s grandmothers, Alice and Mildred, and the Rhode Island Reds for my zany red-headed great aunts, Bridget and Josephine. Neighborhood children and adults visited every day. Life was good.

The chicks grew up to be a beautiful and sociable flock. They loved to climb the stairs to our back porch and hang outside the screen door while we humans visited inside. This was back in the Spring of 2012 when the Metropolitan Government of Nashville first passed the Domesticated Hen Ordinance allowing urban residents to keep up to six chickens in their fenced-in backyards.

Chickens at the Backdoor

In the beginning of our poultry husbandry, it was all cartoonish chickens running across the grass in their funky lopsided way, and chicken idioms come to life. After about five months, eggs started appearing in the nest box, and it seemed like a happy bonus rather than the original intent. A few years later, with the addition of blue-egger Ameracaunas to the flock, the variety of eggs became downright gorgeous.

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Eventually, the Circle of Life, Survival of the Fittest, Mother Nature, whatever, showed its hungry head and there was some attrition in the happy flock.

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I didn’t grow up on a circle of life farm, so when the hawk picked off the first few chickens, it took me a while to adjust. The chickens adapted to this menace better than I; they learned to run for cover whenever they heard the hawk’s whistling call or saw his shadow overhead. They also learned to make a beeline for the bushes when I let them out in the morning to avoid being out in the open where a hawk could easily spy them. They were smart chickens.

As there was more attrition to come, at some point, I had to stop naming the replacement chickens. Instead, I referred to them by their breed. That is, until last Spring, when I brought my newly acquired Golden Comet chicken to visit Glendale Elementary School in Nashville. There, a young girl in Ms. Meadors’ kindergarten class raised her hand and asked me the chicken’s name.  I hemmed and I hawed. How could I tell this darling child I didn’t name my chickens anymore because Mother Nature could be ruthless? “Comet,” I replied with a motherly smile. The name stuck.

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Last week, Comet, the only chicken in the flock who liked to be held, died. This is a tribute to her.

One Chicken’s Life

Comet was born on a rural farm in Kentucky that raised Golden Comets, a breed known for being good layers. Once the baby chicks were hatched, they were placed in an open field in movable cages known as “chicken tractors.” The chickens fed on the grass beneath their feet until it was all consumed and then the cages, with their big supporting wheels, were rolled to another area of the field.

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Once the chickens outgrew the tractors, they were moved to a fenced-in apple orchard for grazing. The canopy of apple tree branches helped protect the flock from hawks.

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I asked the farmer, whom I knew from previous visits to the farm to buy eggs, if he would sell me two of his young layers. He did so with some reluctance — I don’t think anyone had ever asked him that question before. He sent his son to fetch two chickens. The young boy, obviously adept at this task, snuck up on the chickens and grabbed them by the ankles.

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We brought the chickens home and waited until nightfall to introduce them to the established flock. This is a time-honored technique used to decrease the likelihood of new birds being hen-pecked by older girls in their society. The idea is that the birds all wake up together and are not as startled by the presence of the newbies among them. We’ve learned from experience this method doesn’t always work, so for added insurance, we bought a “flock block” and placed it in the enclosed run with them. We hoped it would give the birds something enjoyable to peck on rather than each other.

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It worked; the older ladies left the new girls alone. We have since discovered that as long as we keep a second food source in the run, the chickens have less reason to be territorial. There is now peace in our small chicken kingdom.

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Comet’s life gets interesting.

As I mentioned earlier, last spring, I started bringing Comet to visit children in elementary school classrooms.

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Comet got to visit many schools. There is no telling how many children stroked her golden-red feathers or touched her rubbery red comb.

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Here is Comet in Ms. Benson’s kindergarten classroom where children got to feed Comet leafy greens and pea shoots with their soft leaves and curly-cue tendrils.

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The Boy Scouts came to visit her.

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And, the Girl Scouts.

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The scouts all learned How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled. You can learn how, too, in the video located in that post.  

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Comet and I were featured in a photo shoot for a nationally known online knitting magazine called Mason Dixon Knitting. I adore this photo of Comet taken by my dear friend and neighbor, Ann Shayne. Ann later gifted me with the beautiful purple and raspberry colored handknit cowl.

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A few more remembrances of Comet.

Here she is eating her leafy greens and peas.

Tilling and munching in the compost pile.

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Visiting while I planted an asparagus bed.

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Taking in the scuttlebutt at the watercooler.

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Leading the charge as the flock followed me around the yard.

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Comet was one fantastic chicken.

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In Memory of Comet:
50 Ways to Make a Frittata
Quiche Lorraine with Bacon and Kale
Freshly Cooked Tortillas

Related Stories:
Family Dirt
Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled

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A few days ago my husband, the physics major, taught me a new trick: how to tell if an egg is hard-boiled without cracking it open. It’s hard to believe I’ve gotten this far in my life without knowing this.

Now, go and give it a try!

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.