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Archive | food

Sometimes chili is chili. Sometimes it’s a metaphor.

I cook at lot in the fall. Something about that first chill in the air that makes me want to get all Ma Ingalls and make big pots of rib-sticking food, much of which I freeze for the winter months. Of course Ma Ingalls didn’t have a freezer but you take my point.

So. I decided to make chili. And also a squash-apple-curry soup. Because even though it’s 85F and sunny outside, it’s November, dammit, and in November, a person makes soup. Like Maurice Sendak said, “In November’s gusty gale,  I will flop my flippy tail and spout hot soup – I’ll be a whale! Spouting once, spouting twice, spouting chicken soup with rice!”

We invited some friends to dinner as a cooking incentive; I did the walk of shame through the pork room at the grocery store, bought vegetables (I put vegetables in my chili), entered the dark warren of my kitchen, and set to chopping.  Maybe it’s a good thing that there aren’t any windows in my kitchen: it makes it easier to feel fall-ish.  Of course, when I emerged from the kitchen, I’d stand in the hall blinking for a few seconds at the brilliant sunshine streaming in the windows.

Into my chili went: chorizo from Spain, carrots from Jordan, eggplant from Iran, peppers from Holland, kidney beans from the French chain store Carrefour, canned tomatoes from Waitrose in the UK.  The chili powder – well, the chilly powder – and other spices came from the UAE.

On top of each bowl of chili went a blob of labneh (like a cross between sour cream and yogurt, and made locally); a sprinkle of grated Kraft cheddar; and a handful of chopped cilantro from Abu Dhabi.  (And no I didn’t have any cheddar cheese on my chili; I’m on day two of being cheese-free, and while life no longer seems worth living, at least I’ve stuck to my pact for two entire days.)

A global chili, that’s what I made.  A metaphor in a pot,  a cosmopolitan stew.

Plus? It was delicious.  Fall is definitely in the air.


Continue Reading · on November 2, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, food, NaBloPoMo

Cheeseless, or How Much I Love My Mother

A confession: I love cheese. I’m almost Dutch that way – it’s not really a meal unless there’s a cheese product involved. I am happiest standing at the kitchen counter dipping pretzel sticks into flavored cream cheese. In fact, that’s what I had for lunch the other day.  I think about most food (outside of cookies) in terms of whether or not it can be considered a cheese-bearing vehicle.

I give you this information so that you’ll understand the magnitude of the bargain I made with my mother (from whom I learned my love of du fromage ). I’d been telling her that she should cut down on cheese because I’ve heard that cheese and dairy can contribute to inflammation and she’s got wicked arthritis, and because she’s been trying to lose weight. So damned if she didn’t call me on my challenge and say, basically, that she’d go cheese-free if I would.

Okay, it’s not quite Sophie’s choice, but still: love of cheese or love of mother?

Mom won. I tossed out the remains of the cream cheese this morning; my lunch was salsa and ham and Wasa (a combination that would’ve been vastly improved with a slab o’cheddar); I can’t even think about dinner.

I told the boys this morning about the bargain I’d made with grandma about going cheese-less and asked them who they thought would crack first. Without missing a beat, they both said “you, Mommy, no way you’re going to make it.”  Lovely, their faith in me, isn’t it?

So. An entire month without cheese. We’ll see.

I can always take solace in yogurt, I guess.  I agreed to cut out cheese, not dairy, after all. I mean, I love my mom, but I’m not crazy.

image source

Continue Reading · on November 1, 2012 in family, food, Kids, NaBloPoMo

the things they carried (with thanks to Tim O’Brien)

Tim O’Brien has a fantastic book called The Things They Carried, about the talismanic objects that Viet Nam soldiers carried in their rucksacks.  We all carry things with us – things to remind us of the people we love, things to ward off danger, things to bring luck (and things to keep the baby quiet in Tar-jay, to amuse the restless fourth grader in the backseat, to bribe the recalcitrant pre-teen).

Expats carry things with them too, as they migrate from this “home” to whatever other country they call “home.” The journey isn’t as perilous as the journey confronting combat soldiers (although the customs line at JFK would terrify even the most hardened combat veteran), but still, we travel, cross-pollinating the flavors and comforts of our various homes as we go.

In no particular order, here’s what we carried back from the States this summer (not counting: new sneakers, Kiehl’s shampoos, several sets of ridiculously high thread-count sheets ridiculously on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond, and several vibrating souvenirs from BlogHer12).

Ortega Taco Spice Packets, because really, nothing gives that genuine Mexican taste like mixing orange-MSG-laced powder with ground beef (or as they call it here, Australian beef mince). Ole!

Maple syrup.  Maple trees aren’t precisely indigenous to the region, so syrup costs a fortune. Luckily, that ol’Canuck Trader Joe has big plastic jugs of the stuff, which here would cost 20, 30, 40 dollars.

Trader Joe’s Multi-Grain Pancake Mix. Actually, if I could, I would have packed most of TJ’s into my suitcase. But this pancake mix? Fantastic. Plus if you sprinkle an extra spoonful (or 2) of ground flaxseed into the batter and then put chocolate chips into the pancakes, your kids will never know.

Pepperoni. Greasy, salty, porky pepperoni. Well-laced with stabilizers, preservatives, and poly-syllabic words. We live in a country that has a vexed relation to pork, so finding real pepperoni is a tricky proposition.  “Turkey pepperoni,” which I see in some of the stores here just ain’t gonna cut it.  God never wanted turkeys to be pepperoni.

Real vanilla extract. Yes, it’s entirely possible I could make my own. No, I probably won’t ever do that. And no, you can’t buy it here easily because real vanilla extract is made with alcohol.  So c’mon over – we’re serving vanilla shots chez moi tonight!

Gross sugary toothpaste with Spongebob on the package, which is all that Caleb uses to brush his teeth. I don’t even know what the hell flavor this goo is supposed to be, but as of yet, Caleb has not graduated into minty-toothpaste age.  When he discovers in himself the need for winterfresh breath, I’ll know that he’s really moving out of childhood.

Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa packets. Why my children prefer this stuff, with the hard flecks of marshmallow to the Cadbury hot cocoa that’s sold here, I have no idea. But the Swiss Missy is nowhere to be found, so into the suitcase she went.

Gluten for my friend Shannon because she’s just like that: others want gluten free but she goes the other direction: adds gluten to her bread dough and swears the bread tastes better. She said something about making me some bread in payment for toting these bags along …

I wanted to buy a waffle iron and bring it back, but Husband said something about voltage and short-circuits and plugs and over-the-weight-limit (the suitcases, not me), so I didn’t. But here’s a thing to contemplate: nowhere in this city, with all its electronics stores, hypermarkets, and upscale boutiques, can I find something as ordinary as a waffle iron. Is there some kind of waffle-fatwa that I don’t know about?

Our suitcases bulged, it’s true, but when we sat down to breakfast one morning with our pancakes and real maple syrup, while we looked out the window at the sun on the Arabian Gulf, it all seemed worth it: we had brought a bit of one home to the other.

Now I just have to figure out this waffle-fatwa. After all, I’ve got syrup.





Continue Reading · on September 20, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, food, NYC, Travel, UAE

Out of Africa II: The Search for Carnage

On our safari drives through Amboseli and the Masai Mara, it seemed as if we were in a beautifully tended wild-life park. In the Mara, fields of tall grass ripple into the hills and umbrella-shaped acacia trees dot the horizon, and in Amboseli, on a clear day, the snowy tip of Kilimanjaro creates a postcard-perfect background for grazing elephants. We frequently felt like we were roaming through some artist’s rendering of “Africa,” rather than a real place. This sense of being in a sanitized preserve, rather than in the wild, was heightened by the fact that the animals don’t even blink at the safari jeeps puttering along, as quietly as a jeep in low gear can go.

At one point, however, when Caleb looked as if he were going to climb out of the jeep to get a closer look (probably at poop), the guide warned him back in by saying that in the jeep we were safe, but if we were to climb out? We’d be…meat.

That put a different spin on things.

Meat. The entire ecosystem revolves around food: looking for it, finding it, trying not to be it. We weren’t in a sanitized, idealized wildlife park at all; we were voyeurs at the table, watching the literal enactment of eat-or-be-eaten (in contrast to the metaphoric version of this struggle, which I lived through in high school, usually at the bottom of the food chain).

Liam and Caleb loved the thought that they’d become “lion sausage” if they fell out of the jeep; it thrilled their blood-thirsty little souls, which had been fed, inadvertently, by watching back-to-back episodes of “Planet Earth” in preparation for our trip. A word to the wise: remember that the money shots of those programs–the leopard taking down an antelope, a crocodile feeding frenzy–take days, weeks, months, even years to capture on film. Liam and Caleb, with visions of National Geographic specials dancing in their heads, were waiting for the Big Kill.

Safari brochures don’t talk about carnage; they talk about seeing “the Big Five” – elephant, rhino, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard – but the Big Five got this title during the days when you went on walking safari to kill things, and these five creatures were the ones you’d better drop with one shot, or suffer mortal consequences. Ironically, of course, of these five, only two are carnivores, but any of them could kill you with one well-placed swipe of a paw, foot, or horn.

Looks just like ol’Bessie down on the farm, doesn’t she? Just your standard, 2000lb Cape buffalo. Our guide turned off the jeep and we sat in silence, listening to them whuffle and chew – utterly peaceful, as if we were in a cow pasture in Wisconsin.

But unlike the Bessies of the animal world, buffalo are so big and so mean that they have very few natural predators, although if several lionesses team up, they might be able to bring down an infirm buffalo. Lions, of course, have no natural predators either, but I learned that the whole King of the Jungle thing is, like so many things having to do with men, more style than substance.  Adult male lions are crappy hunters (too slow and those huge heads, with all that flashy David Lee Roth-esque hair, makes it impossible for them to leap after their prey); they steal food from other hunters; they spend most of the day asleep in the bushes. Basically, they’re just glamorous scavengers.

But they start out as just the cutest little things you’ve seen this side of a youtube kitten video:

Watching this lion cub frolic in the grass with its plaything added to my sense of being in some sort of Disneyfied nature preserve, and then I realized that the “toy” this cub was tossing around was…meat. A hunk of meat, probably from a warthog, judging from the skin still attached to the bloody chunk.  (Warthogs, said our guide, are the original lion sausage: a dead adult warthog will provide a nice lunch for a lioness and her cubs.)  This cub kept its hunkahunka bloody meat all to itself, fending off its siblings with growls and bites.

Hippos aren’t listed in the Big Five but they should be: according to our guides, hippos are the most dangerous creatures in the jungle.If a hippo decides to chase you, you’re pretty much toast: they move astonishingly quickly despite their bulk.  Hippos spend the day in the river, clustered in their familial herds, and each family has its own section of the river. Woe betide the hippo who wanders into the wrong section of the river:

This hippo was killed by the equivalent of friendly fire: other hippos. And yes, that is a vulture on its back. Lunch al fresco. Or al hippo, actually.

Eat or be eaten, right? It’s the basic dialectic of life.  It always seems a bit unfair, though, when the eater is a carnivore and the eaten is not. Like apples and oranges, or, in this instance, gazelles and cheetahs.

Thomson’s gazelle:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it leaps along through the grass and usually grazes alongside zebras, topis, elands, and all the other grass-eaters–all of which are bigger than the Tommies.

Consider also, the cheetah:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it slides through the grass and tries to kill the Tommies.  One amazing day in the Mara, we pulled alongside this cheetah and sat in the jeep almost not breathing for fear of disturbing whatever plan the cheetah had. Perched on an abandoned termite hill, the cheetah’s tiny head swiveled this way, that way, this way…and then it glided into the tall grass and almost disappeared (that dramatic coat becomes nothing more than sun-dappled grass, once the cheetah gets low to the ground).  For about twenty minutes, we watched in amazement as the cheetah moved through the grass, ever closer to an unsuspecting herd of topi and Tommies. It got closer and closer, moving so slowly that it almost didn’t disturb the tall grass. And then? It literally streaked through the grass towards the Tommie it had singled out from the crowd:

That little Tommie leaping with all its might?

Cheetah lunch.

At the end of the cheetah’s hunt, I almost wanted to applaud. The odds against the cat bringing down the gazelle seemed impossible: for almost a half-hour, it had stalked the herd, which at any moment might have gotten a whiff of eau de cheetah and bolted, or might have decided that it was time to head to the river for a drink.  Pure random luck had allowed that cheetah to catch that gazelle.

And then I felt bad for the gazelle.

Our guide said, “you know, photographers wait for days to see a hunt like this. You’re very lucky.”

“That was awesome,” said my darling eight-year-old lion sausage. “Now can we see a crocodile bring down a zebra?”

See what I mean? The animals are never sated. It’s not a park at all. It’s a jungle out there, people, a jungle.

Continue Reading · on August 23, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Education, family, food, Travel

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