05 February 2011

Have you ever tried dried figs?

Tomorrow, weather permitting, is fig picking day.

My mum has the best fig tree in Melbourne. It's not huge, it doesn't seem to have grown any in the last 15 years, but it is the best fruiter. Every summer, regardless of the climatic conditions, it produces bucket loads of ripe, juicy figs.

Everyone in the family loves figs so we all line up for our bucketful of lovely fresh figs. Picking day is  a family get-together with all the aunties, uncles and cousins coming to pick their figs and we always end the day with a barbecue. The family is so big now and so spread out that for some of us this is the only day of the year we actually get together, so it's extra special.

As soon as the barbecue is over it's a race to get home and get the figs cooked. We love fig jam so most of them go into the jam pot but I love dried figs to nibble on and they are lovely in fruit cake too so some fruit is kept aside for drying.

I like to serve dried figs spread with a little homemade ricotta or labna and sprinkled with chopped nuts for dessert.  They're also rather nice chopped into smallish pieces and added to porridge or muesli for breakfast.

Figs dry very nicely. First, though, you must let them ripen fully to develop their flavour. You'll know they are ripe and ready when they start dropping from the tree. Harvest them quickly, wash and dry them, and cut them in half.

I don't have a dehydrator (it's on my wish list though) so I use the oven and my instructions are for oven drying. Melbourne's weather is usually hot enough, but too humid and unpredictable to successfully dry them in the sun, especially this summer. 

If you plan to dry them in the sun, you need hot days with little humidity. A warm, dry breeze circulating around the figs for two days is ideal. Bring your trays in before the evening dew. To discourage bugs, you can prop a layer of cheesecloth up across the trays.

I dry the figs (and tomatoes, eggplant and capsicum) in the oven. It's simple and I didn't have to buy any special equipment although as I said a dehydrator is on my wish list. You want a temperature no higher than 60°C (140°F). And 45° to 50° (115°F to 120°F) is actually best for fruit. Many ovens cannot be set that low, however, so you may need to find some absolutely safe way to prop the oven door open a little to allow the excess heat to vent.

My oven (fan forced electric) only goes as low as 100°C so I leave the door open a crack. It actually props open by itself, yours may too, so I don't need to use anything to keep it open. A long handled wooden spoon between the oven side and the door will keep it open and it should be just enough to keep the temperature even.

Some instructions let you go as high as 70°C (160°F), but at that temperature the fruit may actually begin to cook, which is not what you want. Or the surface will dry out before the inside, trapping moisture inside, and leading to the development of mould which will just mean you've wasted your energy, time and money because you'll have to throw the lot out.

At a temperature around 50°, the figs will take between 8 and 12 hours to dry. Test them after 8 hours to see how they are. They should be drying, but not leathery at this stage. You can stop the drying now if you want them to be more like a glace fruit consistency.

If you want them to be really dry, cook them for another two hours and check them again. By now they'll be as dry as sultanas. I usually stop the cooking at this stage because we like to eat them with cheese and crackers and I add them to fruit cakes.

For a very dry, fruit leather let them cook the full twelve hours.

After the figs are dry and leathery, you need pasteurize them to kill any insects that may be lurking in the cracks and crevices. You can either heat them in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at 80°C (175°F) or put them in freezer bags and freeze them for at least four days. The freezer method is a little less destructive to vitamins, minerals and texture and is what I use (I treat all dry goods that come into the house like this, to destroy any bugs that may be lurking in the packets).

If you keep them in and air tight container in the refrigerator, they’ll last for 18 to 24 months. In the freezer, they’ll last for 5 to 8 years, or so I'm told. They never last more than a few months in our house so I've never had the opportunity to test the use-by time.

Drying the figs is an easy household job, and one I enjoy doing. Seeing the containers full of dried fruit stacked in the freezer gives me a great sense of accomplishment and always puts a smile on my face. We would never be able to enjoy them as we do if I had to buy them from the supermarket or deli, the cost would be way too much for my grocery money.

For the grand cost of a day of fun with family and half an hour of prep time we get to have something we love all year round. We would have spent the day doing something fun anyway, and on fig picking day we get a double benefit.

I hear over and over from non-Cheapskaters that they don't have time to dry fruit or make laundry powder or cook from scratch. And then they become Cheapskates and I hear over and over of all the wonderful-good things they are making for their families, and how much money the are saving.

Even if you've never tried to dry fruit  or make jam or cook a pie from scratch, or you've never made your own washing powder or spray cleaner, give it a go. Try. It's easy. There's a ton of information available in the Member's Centre, or look online, you'll be overwhelmed with ideas and advice.

Saving money is easy. You just have to want to do it, and a great place to start is in the kitchen.

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