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Easy entertaining with figs

It's always nice to have a new recipe for a special party or for an everyday gathering. This simple Pork Stew with Figs and Rosemary can star at a weekend dinner or weeknight supper. Set out the savory-sweet Figs and Feta Spread for an almost-effortless appetizer. Bake a wonderful variation of a classic cheesecake--Fantastic Fig Cheesecake--for dessert. Or dress up a buffet with Figs in Blankets--figs, yogurt, walnuts, honey and mint wrapped in phyllo.

There's a common ingredient to all these unique but easy recipes--figs. These dried fruits from California add flavor, sweetness and a delightful crunch from their tiny seeds.

There's a Mediterranean basis to these recipes because figs, the oldest fruit known to mankind, are elemental to cuisines of regions all around this sea. The richly flavored figs partner perfectly with salty (feta and prosciutto in the Fig and Feta Spread); creamy (Greek-style yogurt and cream cheese in Fantastic Fig Cheesecake); nutty and fruity in the Figs in Blankets, and herbal in the Pork Stew with Figs and Rosemary.

Keep a pouch of dried California figs on hand for other uses too. They're great to chop up and stir into oatmeal or other hot cereal. Or, add chopped figs to your favorite drop or bar cookie recipe. Stir them into chicken, tuna or ham salad; or halve and add to mixed baby greens or shredded cabbage. Mix with cream cheese for a great bagel spread. Poach them in a little Port or orange juice and then serve with premium quality vanilla ice cream. Or, easiest of all, enjoy straight from the package for a simply satisfying snack.

Pork Stew with Figs and Rosemary

This is a perfect recipe for the slow cooker and for effortless entertaining. Best of all you can make this savory stew a day or two in advance both for your convenience and to let the flavors "marry". The figs give a wonderful sweetness and the pop of the fig seeds lend a great texture contrast to the stew. Just add a salad of mixed greens and you're ready for guests. You may use lamb stew meat instead of pork. The variation is darker in color and has a deep rich flavor. Lamb lovers give it four stars. For a quicker-cooking stew, use cubed boneless pork loin or lamb leg and simmer for about 45 minutes or until meat is tender.

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds lean boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
3 medium leeks, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
3 cups water
1/2 cup port wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons salt
1 package (9 ounces) dried California figs
2 cans (15 ounces each) white beans, drained and rinsed
Rosemary sprigs, for garnish

In large saucepan or pot over medium high heat, heat olive oil. Add pork, a handful at a time, and brown cubes on all sides. Lift browned meat out and set aside while browning remaining pork in small amounts. Return all pork to pan. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until limp, about 5 minutes. Add water, wine, rosemary and salt. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat to simmer. Cover and simmer slowly 1 hour. Meanwhile, snip stems from figs with kitchen shears or scissors. Cut figs in halves or quarters. Add figs to stew, cover and continue to simmer until pork is fork tender, about 1 hour longer. Stir in beans and simmer until beans are heated through, about 10 minutes. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Figs in Blankets

Flaky phyllo bundles hold this delightful savory/sweet filling of nuts, cheese or yogurt, mint and a hint of lemon. Serve individually or put them out on a platter for a party buffet. You can easily double this recipe and use a whole package of phyllo, or keep the remaining roll of phyllo in the freezer for another event.

1 package (9 ounces) dried California figs
1 1/2 cups Greek style nonfat or regular yogurt
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1/2 to 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 roll (8 ounces) phyllo sheets, thawed (from a 16-ounce package)
1/4 cup butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 F. Snip stems from figs with kitchen shears or scissors. In medium bowl, combine chopped nuts, yogurt, honey, mint and lemon zest. Open 1 roll of phyllo sheets and spread on clean work surface. Cut in half crosswise to form 9- by 7-inch pieces. Keep unused sheets covered with a damp paper towel. Layer 4 of the 9- by 7-inch pieces on work surface. Place 2 1/2 figs in center of each square. Top with two tablespoons of nut/yogurt mixture. Brush edges of phyllo square with melted butter. Bring diagonally opposite sides of phyllo together over figs to form a packet and gently twist and press with fingers to seal. Brush outsides of each packet with melted butter and arrange on buttered baking sheet. Bake packets until just golden brown, about 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool before serving. Makes 10 servings.

Fantastic Fig Cheesecake

Impressive desserts always make an event special, and this cheesecake-with-a-difference is bound to win rave reviews. In place of lots and lots of cream cheese and sour cream you use yogurt "cheese" (see below for directions). Select Greek-style yogurt, which is rich and creamy, or use regular unflavored yogurt, whole or reduced fat--the option is yours. Figs add rich color and sweetness as well as texture from the little fig seeds. And there's no added sugar--the figs handle the sweetening job very well.

Yogurt cheese:
1 quart Greek-style yogurt

2 cups shortbread cookie, graham cracker or cornflake crumbs
1 /4 cup butter, melted

1 package (9 ounces) dried California figs
1 package (8 ounces) regular or reduced fat cream cheese, softened
4 eggs
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/2 teaspoon salt

Yogurt cheese: Line a large strainer with cheesecloth or several thicknesses of paper towel and place over a large bowl. Turn yogurt into lined strainer and let stand at least 30 minutes. Pour off and discard the liquid that accumulates in bowl. Crust: Preheat oven to 350 F. In medium bowl, combine crumbs and melted butter until mixed. Pat crumb mixture over bottom and about 1/2 inch up sides of 10-inch springform pan. Bake 10 minutes. Set aside while preparing filling. Filling: Snip stems from figs with kitchen shears or scissors. In food processor, process figs until coarsely chopped. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth. (Figs will be pureed.) Turn into prepared crust and bake until knife inserted near edge comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. Let cool completely on wire rack. Run sharp knife around edge to loosen, if necessary. Carefully loosen and lift off rim. Chill until ready to serve. Cut slices with knife dipped in hot water. If desired, garnish with additional figs and strips of lemon peel. Makes 16 servings.

Fig and Feta Spread

Give your appetizer repertoire a makeover with this spread. The savory, sweet and crunchy combo of figs, feta and salty Prosciutto makes impressive and very tasty little bites. If you wish, serve the prosciutto-wrapped fig mixture all alone, serve the spread wrapped in the watercress leaves, or put out a pretty bowl and a spreader so guests can put dabs onto crackers.

1 package (9 ounces) dried California figs
4 to 5 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons port (optional)
12 thin slices prosciutto, cut in 3- to 4- inch lengths
Watercress or arugula leaves
Round thin crackers

Snip stems from figs with kitchen shears or scissors. In food processor, blend figs, feta, vinegar, olive oil and port until figs are finely chopped. (Or chop figs and then stir together with feta, vinegar, olive oil and port.) Cover and chill until about 1 hour before ready to serve. To serve, place a rounded teaspoonful of fig mixture at one end of prosciutto slice. Roll up tightly. Arrange 1 leaf watercress or arugula on a cracker and top with fig-filled prosciutto slice. Makes about 2 cups spread, about 30 appetizer servings.

--You'll find dried California Black Mission figs or golden Calimyrna figs in the baking or bulk foods section of your supermarket, in handy pouches, trays, crowns or finger packs or in bulk, and either conventional or organic.

--Figs are full of fiber. Three Calimyrnas or four Black Mission figs provide five grams--20 percent of a day's requirement. Figs also provide other nutrients as well: iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and copper.

--All of the dried figs in the US are grown on generations-old family farms in California's Central Valley, where the rich soil and hot dry climate produce the very best fruit.

--Figs are tree-ripened and partially dry right on the trees. To use, all you need do is trim or snip off the stem.

--Should you have any figs leftover after recipes or snacking, store them in an airtight container and they'll keep at least 6 months.

Visit www.californiafigs.com for more delicious recipes



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