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The author’s fig tree in Shelter Island. Credit: Charity Robey

Five falls ago, I planted an unpromising-looking stick with five or ten leaves near the southwest corner of my house on Shelter Island, hoping for a harvest of figs someday. It seemed like a long shot at the time, so I was thrilled two years later to have enough figs to supply a few breakfasts for me and the birds. I think the chipmunks got a few.

But last night I was still canning fig jam at 1 a.m.. Clearly things got out of hand somewhere along the way.

As the tree grew, so did my contacts in the field. It started with a series of Instagram posts directed at my sister in California, who has a fig tree (growing in ideal conditions, mind you) that was out-produced by my warmth-starved tree. I had to admit defeat when she sent pictures of her grapefruits and lemons.

Those posts led me to people who were growing figs in some very unlikely places, many from cuttings handed down in the family, or a stick that came over from Italy with immigrant grandparents.

I didn’t really expect much of a fig tree planted outdoors in the Northeast, but I started to hear about them growing  in a restaurant garden in Sag Harbor, the front yards, back yards and side yards of houses all over Mattituck, Southold and Shelter Island, and even behind brownstones in Brooklyn.  People were cultivating them in containers on their patio, and although some North Fork fig-growers are mainly enjoying the large leaves (they are definitely big enough to hide your parts if you’re wondering) I’m most excited by culinary uses of the fruit — beyond jam.

A fig tart made by the author last week. Credit: Charity Robey

Figs baked on a fig leaf with goat cheese, figs roasted cut-side down as a bed for a filet of bluefish or mahi mahi, and fig tarts topped with cut-side up roasted figs all came to me from the Hive Mind of Fig Nation, and I cooked every one so as not to waste the daily heap of figs falling off my tree. I learned that when I eat them out of hand, it’s better to tear them apart than slicing, to get the perfect bite of smooth skin and soft, pink middle. Here’s a recipe for my favorite way to dispose of a half dozen.

Fig Leaf Ice Cream with Honey and Cardamom

1 cup whole milk

2 fig leaves, washed well and dried

½ cup superfine sugar

4 tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cardamom

2 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste

5 ounces ripe figs; stems removed, rinsed with boiling water in a strainer, finely-chopped and mashed.

  1. Heat the milk to a simmer with two washed and dried fig leaves mostly submerged. Let it steep for 20 minutes.
  2. Add the sugar, honey, salt and cardamom to the warm milk. 
  3. Remove the leaves, and mix with a wooden spoon, pressing the solids against the side of the container until the sugars and honey are completely dissolved in the warm milk.
  4. Add the heavy cream, vanilla bean paste and mashed figs.
  5. Refrigerate in a covered container for at least four hours before churning.
  6. Freeze in a churn until the ice cream is extremely thick, and the paddle will barely move.
  7. Scrape into a glass or thick-walled plastic container and freeze the ice cream for about an hour before serving.