I credit the slumber party with my coming-of-age. The inexorable will of 13-year-old girls is guided by whimsy and so it follows that life was defined by inexperience, peer pressure and an urge to express our uniqueness. This led to much misadventure, self-discovery and poison ivy. When left to our own devices, we devised whatever singular culinary innovations we pleased. Ravaging the contents of our mothers' cupboards and closets, watching reruns of Cheers and laughing at jokes we didn't understand, we ushered in an uncertain broadening.
We slapped turkey cold cuts against translucent sheets of apricot leather and rolled them into pale cigars. We sliced cold leftover beef franks into rounds, spread them with cream cheese and orange marmalade, and consumed them with toothpicks as if they were hors d’oeuvres being passed around at a cocktail party. Cold cottage cheese would be piled so high on our cinnamon raisin toast that we could barely see over the tops while we ate.
From an early age, I loved sweet and savoury combinations; cheddar and apples, fries dipped in milkshake, and pizza topped with pineapple and jalapeños (still my favoured toppings) – but sweetened meat was something I approached with hesitation. In those years, one dish on regular rotation at the family table was Moroccan chicken with prunes and olives. Partial as I am to bone-in thighs, I turned my nose up at its obscurity here, all shadowy forms swathed in darkness and lumps. Eventually, I learnt that prunes and olives, plump with braising juices, were delicious scooped on to hunks of bread and cheese. Still I refused to touch the chicken.
Trying to look seasoned at my first college Shabbat dinner, I cringed through a honey-sweet dining hall casserole of chicken breasts baked with dried apricots in the Sephardic style. It wasn’t until a friend swore by her mother’s pot roast, made using frozen lemonade concentrate and redolent of Windex, that I seriously began questioning people’s fondness for that flavour profile and my aversion to it, from the bloated puffs of battered chicken trapped in trays of orange syrup at American-style Chinese restaurants to the most restrained of classical presentations, including duck à l’orange, pheasant with wild cherries, venison terrine with blueberries, veal sausage with Cumberland sauce (made with red currant jelly), lamb with mint jelly — and of course, Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce. Given the choice, I reach for the mustard.
When I hit Whole Foods last week for an emergency sandwich, all that remained after the lunch rush was stuffed either with Sonoma chicken salad, full of fat red grapes, or tuna salad studded with cranberries. The prospect of either was dismal. Mine is a strong preference for dry rubs and barbecued meats that don’t require sauce, because marinades, glazes and sauces can be as cloying as straight molasses.
Though I may never voluntarily choose sole Veronique, where butter, cream and shallots infuse green grapes and make them good, over fruit-free sole meunière, with its lemony halo of browned butter, I’ve learnt to love fruit on the side of certain dishes and have become more interested in the use of papaya, pineapple and fig enzymes as meat tenderisers. Try grilled hanger, flank or skirt steaks with a salad of tomatoes, plums and torn basil, or a salad of grilled peaches, goat’s cheese, corn and coriander. Sliced oranges layered with red onion, extra- virgin olive oil and herbs can temper the richness of duck confit. And alongside lamb or chicken, a cooling pile of watermelon chunks tossed with mint, feta cheese and black olives.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico
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