At sundown today, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins. One of my favorite parts of this important but still joyous holiday is the mandate to start the year with sweetness. No radicchio, no vinegar, nothing bitter or sour. That will come in due time, as part of life. But right now, while the new year is still untouched and full of promise, it should hold nothing but sweetness. Honey is a traditional part of the new year's table, as are new fruits, those that have just ripened during this autumn season but haven't found their way into your kitchen yet. They can be served as is, baked into desserts, or slow-braised with chicken, duck, or brisket.
We have a rich variety of such fruits to choose from this season: dusty blue, oval-shaped French and Italian sugar plums, excellent for baking in cakes and tarts; luscious juice-dripping melons; grapes of all colors and sizes, from golden, winey Muscats to brilliant Autumn Flames; the first greeny-yellow Bartlett pears and rough-skinned amber Asian pears. And of course, figs, the crown of our fall harvest. There are Black Mission and Brown Turkey figs, green Kadotas and crazy Candystripes. They are frankly seductive, not juicy like a peach but lush and yielding when perfectly ripe.
Ripeness is all, though: an unripe fig is a hard, chalky thing with all the appeal of seedy spackle. So, first rule of thumb: make sure your figs are ripe. How to tell? A ripe fig should give a little. A drop of clear, sticky juice oozing from the tiny hole at the base is a good thing. You don't want moldy or wrinkly, but softer is better.
It also depends on what you're doing with them. Almost-mushy figs are the tastiest, but they're not going to slice neatly. A wonderful salad for firmer figs this time of year is arugula and mixed lettuces tossed with wheels of peeled orange and quartered figs, dressed with a shallot-sherry vinaigrette and showered, just before serving, with sliced, toasted almonds and nubbins of fresh goat cheese (chevre). Or you can make a divine hors-d'oeuvre by cutting a cross in the top of each fig, tucking in a nubbin of goat or blue cheese, drizzling them with pomegranate molasses and running them under the broiler until the fruit swells and the cheese just begins to melt. Truly, one of the best ways to treat a fig that I've ever discovered.