Picking figs at the Mission Garden operated by Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.
The hottest weather of summer brings Tucson one of its sweetest treats, figs. The figs at the Mission Garden operated by Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, are ripening now. Some of the trees have already produced and are beginning to grow their second crop. This is Carolyn today, and that is me picking figs from one of the trees in the lush recreated historic garden near the Santa Cruz River. The plan was to preserve the figs as jam to be used as an ingredient in cookies for the Farm to Table Picnic being organized by the Mission Garden and Native Seeds/ SEARCH. On the late afternoon of October 18, dinners will be able to picnic on Southern Arizona’s agricultural bounty at tables spread through the Garden. (Ticket detals next month).
The brown figs at Mission Garden are living relics of trees brought to Southern Arizona by Father Kino. They were grown from twigs cut from plants behind the Sosa-Carrillo House. Historic records show that those trees came from cuttings of trees at San Xavier Mission. The green figs were grown from cuttings taken from trees at the settlements near the Ruby and Oro Blanco mines.
Plump figs from Mission Garden. The green ones are called “white” and some people think they are sweeter.
Generally in making jam the old-fashioned way without added commercial pectin, you measure an equal quantity of fruit and sugar and simmer until it is thick. Because these figs were incredibly sweet and because I plan to spread the jam over a base crust, I didn’t care if the jam set up like I would, say a plum or strawberry jam. So I thought it would be safe to use less sugar. Ultimately I used about 4 cups of sugar to 8 cups of chopped figs, about half the usual amount. Since I wanted a smooth product, I put the chopped figs through the blender. I could have also used my food processor.
Blending the chopped figs for a smooth product.
Next came the long slow cooking. In the picture below, you can see the large pot on the left where I was boiling the storage jars to sterilize them.
Cooking the jam.
In any jam making, you need to simmer the fruit and sugar until it reaches about 220 degrees F. This takes both time and careful watching to get the jam to a point where it is not too runny and not too stiff. In Tucson, because of our altitude, 218 degrees F usually gives a better product. Use too high a heat and the jam will burn on the bottom of the pot before it reaches the proper temperature.
To check the temperture, I used to use a traditional candy thermometer that looks like this and works with a column of mercury:
Traditional candy thermometer.
A couple of Christmases ago, however Santa brought me a digital thermometer that is good for roasting a turkey, cooking a thick steak and making jam. It has a probe that sticks in whatever you are cooking and gives you a readout. See the photo below. You can see this one has reached 212 degrees F. and the jam is almost done.:
Battery-operated digital cooking thermometer. The thin silver wire on the right is a probe that rested in the jam.
Once finished, the jam just needed to be ladled into the prepared jars, capped and processed for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. That’s a lot of jam, but I’ll be baking cookies for 200 ticket holders and a whole bunch of volunteers.
Five quarts of fig jam will wait until October to be made into fig bars for the Farm to Table Dinner.
I can’t show you a picture of the fig bars, because I haven’t made them yet. But I have used this recipe previously and it is great. It is a modification of a recipe in Fruits of the Desert by the late food writer Sandal English. If you have fresh figs and are looking for a way to showcase them, try this:
Layered Fig Bars
1 cup sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup oatmeal, quick or old-fashioned
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1-1/2 to 2 cups fig jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and line an 8-inch square pan with foil or parchment paper, leaving some extending over two sides as flaps.
Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Mix in the oatmeal and sugar. Stir in the melted butter and mix until crumbly. Firmly press 2/3 of the mixture in the bottom of the prepared pan. Spread fig jam evenly over the base layer. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Gently pat the top layer down. Bake in preheated overn for about 30 minutes. Cool, lift from the pan using the paper flaps, and cut into 24 bars.
Note: If you are making this for your family and don’t care that the bars come out perfectly shaped, you can skip the step of lining the pan.
Looking for ideas for how to use desert fruits and vegetables? The Prickly Pear Cookbook has delicious recipes for both the fruit and pads and complete instructions for gathering and processing. Cooking the Wild Southwest gives directions for harvesting and cooking 23 easily gathered desert plants. Find both at the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store on Campbell or at on-line sellers.