I have heard, and maybe you have too, that your tastes can change every few years. Something that you once hated can, miraculously, become something that you love. I witnessed this phenomenon happen with my middle brother. Alex was a very picky eater as a child. My mom tells of him eating only applesauce, yogurt, and toast. Slowly but surely he grew into an amazing eater who not only loved food but loved huge quantities of it. Except for three things. Mushrooms, olives, and artichoke hearts. Three things, it just so happens, that I love dearly and cannot imagine my life without. His mother, sister, and wife are all vegetarian so he will taste the things on his NO! list periodically to make sure his tastes haven’t changed. One day he tasted an olive, after not having tried one in a long time, and fell in love. So now, his NO! list only consists of mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Progress. It is for this reason that I force Randy to try beets at least once a year. I am every hopeful that he will see the light and fall in love with beets. So far, not so much.
All of this was on my mind when I found this salad recipe. I don’t consider myself a picky eater. There are very few things, besides meat, that I won’t eat. But figs are on my NO! list. I don’t mind the flavor but the texture is tricky for me. Perhaps it is the fourth grade mean girl who told me that the crunchy bits in my Fig Newton were actually bug bodies. Or perhaps it is the way that figs grow, but I just can’t eat them. I can do fig jam but can’t do figs themselves, especially if they are fresh. But I found the idea of this salad intriguing. The figs are marinated in a balsamic/sugar/thyme/garlic mixture and then a dressing is made from that mixture along with a healthy dose of walnut oil. The figs are seared in a hot pan and the bitter greens (watercress and arugula) are tossed with toasted walnuts and the whole thing is garnished with, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on it, a Brie like cheese from Vashon Island called Dinah’s which is named after a cow.
I taught this salad at my February Seasonal Feast classes. People raved. I always test a recipe multiple times before I teach it and the first time I tried the figs. Nope. Still can’t go there. I loved the dressing and the greens and the walnuts and the cheese. And everyone else loved the figs. They particularly loved the contrast of the warm fig with the cool salad, so if you make this lovely salad, sear off the figs right before you serve it.
One Year Ago: Asparagus Risotto with Orange Pepper and Orange
Two Years Ago: Paparadelle with Herbs, Lemon, and Ricotta Salata
Three Years Ago: Palmiers
Watercress Salad with Marinated Figs and Walnut Dressing
Adapted from Vegetarian
½ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup sugar
2 garlic cloves, bruised
6 thyme sprigs
6 plump figs, halved
4 tbsp. walnut oil
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch watercress, leaves trimmed, stems discarded
2-3 ounces baby arugula
8 slices Brie or Camembert
Small handful of walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
Place the vinegar, sugar, garlic and 4 of the thyme sprigs in a saucepan and add ½ cup of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for a minute to dissolve the sugar. Cook for another 3 minutes then set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Pour over the halved figs and leave to marinate for an hour or two.
Discard the thyme sprigs and garlic from the marinade and spoon about 5 tablespoons into a small lidded jar. Strip the leaves from the remaining thyme sprigs and add to the jar with the walnut oil, olive oil, mustard, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Screw on the lid and shake well to make the dressing. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking.
Heat a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and sear the drained figs, cut sides down, for a minute or so until they caramelize. Remove the pan from the heat, turn the figs over and set aside.
In a large bowl, place the watercress, arugula, and walnuts. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Drizzle the dressing over top, you will not need all of it, and toss well. Serve onto salad plates and tuck the figs and cheese among the leaves.