Fruits of Longing

Calimyrna and Black Mission Figs

I love coming back home. Apart from my family being here, the weather is better (at least in summer), the landscape more beautiful, there are always plenty of hungry mouths to feed and a stack of new cookbooks waiting to inspire me. This trip has been even more pleasurable than usual thanks to my expanding network of foodblogging friends, wonderful people who have taken the time to share a delicious meal and some lively conversation with me. I reconnected with the über-talented Molly and was suitably charmed by her man Brandon over a leisurely dinner of crabcakes and mixed pickles; I had the honor of sharing my first Tom Douglas meal with the gracious and brilliant Heather (who is, as far as I know, the food-blogosphere’s only former news anchor and documentary filmmaker), and I even managed to squeeze a bayside lunch with with the lovely Tea who by coincidence was in the Seattle area visiting family at the same time as me. As great as all these homecoming treats have been, however, I have to admit that the highlight of the trip so far as been none of these. With all due respect and apologies to bloggers and family alike, the truth of the matter is that nothing – and I really mean nothing – on this trip can top the fruit.

Scotland has many things going for it: kilts, for one thing, whisky for another, and let’s not forget haggis, but one thing I have a very hard time living without is really good fruit. Of course there are supermarkets that carry offerings as varied as anywhere else – peaches from Italy, plums from France, cherries from Turkey – but it only takes a closer look for the painful differences to emerge. Most things are heavily packaged, transported from far, far away and sold criminally under-ripe. Organic pickings are slim. Things don’t vary too much with the seasons, either; strawberries, for example, are always on the shelves, sharing space with rock-hard nectarines and blueberries from Antarctica that cost half a month’s rent. Other things I used to consider staples are simply unavailable (for example, a six-month old quest to track down organic red grapes has proven fruitless, if you’ll excuse the pun). And even the one bastion of hope, the weekly Edinburgh farmer’s market, is pretty paltry, with its two or three produce stands and a commitment to only sell what is farmed locally, which with this being Scotland means three seasons of root vegetables and a few lettuce leaves and raspberries in summer.

But then I come home to Washington, to the height of the Northwest harvest. Instead of plastic-entombed fruit-facsimiles there are mountains of fuzzy yellow peaches and blushing Rainier cherries; hand-picked buckets of gigantic inky blackberries still warm from the sun, and crates of the sweetest, most fragrant white nectarines I have ever tasted. My first trip to the market is like that scene in The Wizard of Oz, when suddenly everything changes from black and white to Technicolor. I’m intoxicated by the colors, the perfumes, the sheer abundance; I wander the aisles in a kind of trance, frequently stopping to sniff, caress or simply stare. As you can imagine, I get some funny looks.

And then of course there’s the cooking, which thanks to such produce is almost effortless. I see things, such as these figs, and before I even have them in my basket I know what I want to do with them. Some goat cheese for tang, some cream for richness, some honey for sweetness, and a short nap in a hot oven to caramelize and concentrate the flavors; this is the kind of cooking I dream about all year. The Northwest may never be able to compete with Scotland in the whisky and male-attire departments, but all this exquisite fruit is exerting a pretty strong tractor beam on my poor expat soul. And as much as I love my family, I suspect that if I am ever going to relocate back here for good, the quality of market offerings will have more than a little to do with it.

Fig and Goat Cheese Clafoutis

Fig and Goat Cheese Clafoutis

Serves: 6
Notes: Equal parts custard, cheesecake and pancake, this clafoutis is not terribly traditional, but it is really good. Serve it in generous wedges, lukewarm or at room temperature, with something fresh and tangy as counterpoint – some lightly-sweetened crème fraîche or greek yogurt, a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt or perhaps some homemade buttermilk ice cream

5 oz (150g) mild goat cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (110g) sugar, plus extra for dipping figs
4 large eggs
3 tablespoons honey
3/4 cup (180ml) heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (70g) flour
1 lb (500g) figs, any variety

powdered/icing sugar, for dusting 

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Put the goat cheese and sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Whisk in the honey and cream. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them too. Whisk in the flour just until no lumps remain. At this point the batter can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours (and indeed, some people say it improves with age).

Halve the figs lengthwise. Grease a shallow baking dish or cast-iron skillet (approx 10in/25cm diameter) with butter and pour in the batter. Pour some sugar into a shallow bowl and dip the figs, cut-side down, into the sugar. Arrange them, cut-side up, in the batter.

Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes (this will depend on how large your baking dish is). Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.