July 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Savory and Sweet: A Culinary Challenge

I don’t like to ski and I hate any type of pork and/or ham. And yes, skiing and ham are forever wed in my mind. Here’s what happened: I was around 19 and skiing with my family in Utah for Christmas. I’d been skiing once before, in Alaska, where the skiing is just down the path because it snows everywhere. We weren’t on a mountain, but rather at sea level. I only mention this because I was under the impression that altitude was a mere number and something that shouldn’t concern me. Snow’s snow.

I arrived in Utah and drove and drove and drove up a mountain to the resort while my ears popped. And I checked into the hotel and noticed several signs for tips on avoiding altitude sickness, whatever the hell that was. I promptly ignored all of the warnings -- don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat heavy food, sleep well -- by going to the room where my family was gathering for Christmas Eve dinner.

It was Ukrainian food. And though Eastern European food holds a special place in the history of sour cream and cabbage and salt pork, it is not light. There was also a spiral cut ham. I’d never seen anything like this. It was a ham, but it was pre-cut so it would come off in a Mobius strip of pork. And there were pineapples and cloves stuck to this particular ham. Perhaps it had been basted with Coke-a-cola. I can’t remember, but it seems like a good detail.

Before everyone jumps on me for being elitist or whatever, know that I grew up very middle class in Southern California, which means, I am an expert on anything taco shop, but certain foods, like processed meat, are a little elusive.

Anyway, I ate the ham. I ate a few pieces not because it tasted good -- it did not -- but because I couldn’t believe it just spiraled off the ham that way. I mean, wow! And I ate some Ukrainian food. And I drank some wine -- I was around family. And then in the middle of the night, I felt a little ill. And dizzy. And ill. And I started vomiting. A lot. And up came all of that ham.

I didn’t ski at all in Utah. Instead, I lay in my hotel room and watched VH1 -- the Def Leppard “Behind the Music” played 30 times that weekend, I’m pretty sure. I will say that the drummer is incredibly brave.

While I lay in bed, the people in the room next door had sex. A lot of sex. And they were from, I believe Japan, and I can tell you Japanese sex is different from American sex.

I couldn’t eat any sort of ham or pork after that trip. I couldn’t care less about skiing. And my hatred of pork has transformed into a burning fear and quiet hatred of sweet things that are supposed to be savory. Ham is sweet. Gah. Dinner should not be sweet.

So I was a little apprehensive about cooking from Fiona Dunlop’s The North African Kitchen. Because the recipes call for a lot of raisins and dried fruit and chicken. And cinnamon. And that, to me, is very odd.

But, I’m a daring girl. VERY DARING. And I made Couscous M’hassel -- Sweet Chicken Couscous. It calls for both raisins and cinnamon and saffron. Crushed saffron, which I mistakenly thought would be cheap. Because tea, when it’s all broken up is cheap, why not saffron? I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Saffron is expensive in all of its forms. Even thinking about saffron costs money, I’m pretty sure.

The recipe calls for steaming the chicken, but I was only willing to go so far in the extreme sport of challenging my taste buds. Plus I have a thing about texture -- and melons, if you must know -- and I don’t want to eat flabby meat. So I pan roasted the chicken thighs and I sautéed some onions with the raisins and the cinnamon and I made the couscous according the box, and not the cookbook because the cookbook called for a very complicated, multi-step process for something that is, essentially, pasta.

The end result was very good. The couscous and the raisins and onions made for a lovely tasting meal. It was very simple and I’ve added it to my repertoire. As for the cookbook, the pictures are very nice and the recipes are not challenging. Some call for ingredients that you might not find at the grocery store (harissa or lamb’s neck) but for the most part, the recipes are smart and accessible. Except the couscous -- who has the time or the couscoussier? But if you have the time and the technology, then I bet the couscous is divine.

North African Kitchen has cured me of my mortal fear of anything sweet when it should be savory. However, I will still never eat spiral cut ham, or ski in Utah again. I know, I know. I will, however, be forever on the lookout for sex in foreign languages because like knowing roosters crow kikiriki in Spanish, and a dog says ouah ouah in French, these language nuances are always surprising and satisfying all at once.