Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Superfoods - Fabulous Figs, Terrific Tomatoes

. . . And Recipes You May Not Have Tried Before

If ever there was a Cinderella Superfood, it has to be figs. Fresh they are the most succulent, sensuous, satisfying, sexy and sumptuous of fruits. Dried they’re a source of instant energy, a natural sweetener and they have an uncanny ability to enhance savoury flavours.

If it’s really true that Adam and Eve used fig leaves, then they must have eaten the figs – which is why I’ve never understood why they ever bothered with the apple. There are many other Biblical references to figs both as food and medicine. Isaiah for example told King Hezekiah to apply a fig poultice when he developed a tumour.

Figs contain the anti-cancer agent benzaldehyde, healing enzymes, flavonoids and a particular natural chemical, ficin, which starts the breakdown of proteins and improves digestion. Figs are a rich source of iron, potassium, beta-carotene, fibre and energy and throughout Asia are revered as one of the most aphrodisiac of foods.

Buddhists, Hindus and even the Romans regard the fig as a sacred tree and extracts of the fruit, leaves and bark are important in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. The earliest Olympians consumed masses of fresh figs for strength and stamina and for modern day athletes, fresh or dried, they provide instant energy, potassium to ward off cramp and lots of healthy fibre.

Because they seem so exotic we tend to treat figs as something of a luxury in the UK and eat them sparingly. When they’re in season and at their cheapest – especially in your local market or farm shop* – spoil yourself and indulge. But be careful – the asp that killed Cleopatra arrived in a basket of figs.


Serves 4
This is the simplest and one of the healthiest of sophisticated desserts – or, if you wish, serve it as a starter. Who cares? It’s delicious whenever you eat it. The sweetness of the figs goes brilliantly with the slight sourness of the goat cheese. And the honey gives it a wonderful golden glaze.

8 ripe fresh figs
225g / 8 oz semi-hard goat cheese, not the very soft spreadable varieties
Runny honey for drizzling

Halve the figs lengthwise. Cut the goat cheese into approximately 1 cm (½ in) slices trimmed to fit on top of the figs. Put into an ovenproof dish. Heat the grill to its hottest. Put the figs and cheese under the grill for about 2 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Drizzle over the honey to serve.

Fresh extra
As an alternative, sprinkle the figs with dry-fried sesame or pistachio nuts before drizzling over the honey.

Serves 2
Caramelized onion is a wonderful complement to any fish dish. Here I’ve combined it with figs, which give succulent salmon steaks a particular sweetness, and the gorgeous aromatic herb rosemary. Now it’s the BBQ season, it’s worth remembering that salmon cooks very well over hot coals. The fig sauce can be prepared the previous day and warmed up just as you put the fish on to cook. Or serve it cold. It tastes just as good.

3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
75g/ 3 oz ready-to-eat dried figs, chopped
100ml/ 3 ½ fl oz fish or vegetable stock
3 large sprigs rosemary leaves, very finely chopped
2 salmon steaks

First prepare the sauce. Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onions and sweat gently until soft but not brown – about eight minutes. Stir in the figs, stock and rosemary. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the sauce thickens – about six minutes.

While the sauce is thickening, brush the salmon with olive oil, season with pepper and a good herb salt like Herbamare (correct sp) and cook on a pre-heated griddle or non-stick frying pan, skin side down, for about eight minutes until the flesh flakes easily. Arrange the salmon on two plates and serve with the sauce on the side.

Michael’s tip
I very rarely add salt to anything I cook – except for boiled eggs, which I couldn’t eat without my soldiers dipped in coarse sea salt. Some dishes, however, do need the piquancy of salt, so I usually use a herb based natural condiment like the organic Herbamare made by the famous Swiss company, BioForce. Thanks to the added herbs you need much less which reduces the amount of salt you eat.

* * * *


Just like chocolate, tomatoes are a gift from the high mountains of the Andes. You can’t grow cocoa beans but there is nothing in the world like the smell and taste of a home grown tomato.

Tomatoes are extremely rich in antioxidants, especially carotenoids like beta-carotene and lycopene, as well as vitamins C and E, making them good protectors of the cardiovascular system and against some forms of cancer. They’re also extremely low in sodium and quite rich in potassium so they are helpful in conditions like high blood pressure and fluid retention.

A highly important recent discovery has been the role of lycopene, a carotenoid present in ripe tomatoes. This nutrient is known to protect men against prostate cancer, a much less common disease in Mediterranean countries where 6-8 ripe tomatoes a day is the average consumption. The most up to date research now confirms that lycopene also protects against blood clots, heart disease, breast and bowel cancers as well.

If you want to try growing your own – nothing tastes or smells as good as one you have just picked - the plants divide neatly into small, medium and large and I like the traditional varieties. In the greenhouse I use Gardeners Delight and Super Sweet as small tomatoes; Moneymaker and Shirley for regular fruits.

Outside I grow three large pots, each with three plants, of Marmande (large odd shaped and delicious) and a really old variety called Red Brandywine, which is very thin skinned and enormous. My French neighbour gave me some seeds of an amazing black tomato called Noir de Crimea and if you can find it you will be the envy of your friends!

Once the trusses are set, remove the bottom few leaves to allow plenty of light, keep well watered and dream about soups, sauces, chutneys and the late summer treat of fried green tomatoes.

All the above varieties from The Organic Gardening Catalogue plus biological pest control for the greenhouse and non toxic organically approved sprays and powders. 0845 130 1304,



Serves 4

Tofu isn’t to everybody’s taste, but I’m convinced that’s because few people other than those from the Far East know how to cook it. It’s practically tasteless, so needs strong flavours to make it more attractive to taste. You can either marinate it yourself – in ginger, garlic and balsamic vinegar – or, as I’ve done here, buy ready-marinated tofu, and add even more extra flavours at home. Tofu is a wonderfully healthy food. It’s full of phytoestrogens that help regulate hormone levels and is a valuable food for women of all ages as its calcium content helps build strong bones.

3 heaped tbsp tomato ketchup
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp hot chilli sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp chilli oil (see fresh tip below)
handful of coriander, chopped
1” ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
8 oz Tofu, cubed
1 onion, finely chopped

First make the sauce by mixing together the tomato ketchup, soy sauce, Worcester sauce, chilli sauce, sesame oil and chilli oil.

Heat the rapeseed oil in a wok, add the onions, cook till soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes, ginger and coriander and stir for two minutes. Pour in the sauce and add the tofu and cook gently for seven minutes, stirring occasionally.

Michael’s tip
Chilli oil is sometimes difficult to find and often expensive, but it’s easy to make yourself. When small, hot red chillies are easily available in the shops, buy a few packets – about 20 heads of the fruits – cover them with freshly boiled water, then drain immediately and thoroughly. Leave to cool, push them into a large bottle, cover with olive oil and leave for at least two weeks before use. This oil also gives a really fiery taste to an arabiatta sauce for pasta.

Serves 4

This may sound like a fiddle but it looks fantastic, it tastes even better and it is a huge source of both protective and curative nutrients. Anti-cancer lycopene, a very good source of heart friendly potassium and fibre, a good source of vitamin B6 to help PMS, folic acid for good blood and healthy babies and even some extra iron to help prevent anaemia – all from these amazing tomatoes.

2 very large Marmande or Beefsteak tomatoes, thinly sliced
6 good sized plum tomatoes, quartered lengthways
20 cherry tomatoes, whole
10 sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained
1 red onion, chopped
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp fresh oregano
6 fresh basil leaves

Cover the plate with the thinly sliced large tomato. Put the quarters of plum tomato round the rim, fill the centre with cherry tomatoes, lay the sun dried tomatoes between the plum tomatoes. Scatter over the red onion. Sprinkle over the oregano, tear the basil leaves into small pieces and sprinkle over the plate. Thoroughly mix oil and vinegar and drizzle over the salad.

Serves 2

This may not be absolutely the healthiest breakfast in the world but it’s a great way to serve up bacon and eggs that looks different, tastes great and is a lot better for you than the greasy spoon. It’s perfect for a Sunday brunch, an early snack or a midnight feast. And it looks pretty impressive too.

2 very large firm Beefsteak tomatoes
8 rashers of rindless streaky bacon, preferably organic
8 oz button mushrooms
2 medium organic eggs
1 tsp butter
freshly ground black pepper

Cut the top off each tomato, scoop out all the contents carefully without piercing the wall. Leave upside down on kitchen paper to drain. Dry fry the bacon till crisp, remove from pan and leave to drain on kitchen paper. Chop the mushrooms, add to the pan and cook briskly until just going crispy. Set aside to drain. Crumble the bacon, putting half into each tomato. Add the mushrooms, place tomatoes in a lightly oiled ovenproof dish and break one egg into each. Dot the egg with a little butter, add freshly ground black pepper and put the dish in a preheated oven 180C/350F/gas mark 4 till the eggs are cooked (15-20 minutes).

Michael’s tip:
Don’t waste the inside of the tomatoes. Add to any vegetable juice, tomato sauce, or soup. An easy way of hollowing out the tomatoes is to use a very sharp grapefruit knife.


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