x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How nature does much of the work for us in pairing foods

Some things, like mozzarella and tomatoes, go so well together and are often best at certain times of the year.

Maybe it's the early frost, but there appears to be a plague of venomous black widow spiders in my neighbourhood. It's out of character for the formidable creepers, but they are moving out of our gardens and into our homes. A particularly gregarious one dropped down from a gossamer thread to greet a friend who was chopping vegetables at her kitchen counter last night.

I worry less about the possibility of being bitten than I do about what this means for fall. This is my favourite season, and two weeks into it, there's already snow on the ground. We often hear the phrase "what grows together goes together" and it isn't limited to the edible world.

I wonder if the spiders symbolise the changing of the seasons, even though my tomatoes just started coming in. The temperatures dropped radically and everything was harvested at once, forcing many into an overnight glut that will also mean a decrease in output over the next few weeks. When you're harvesting your own food and checking out local farmers' markets, it's easy to develop a natural sense of what to expect to see at different times of year, and even the most rudimentary home cook knows how to resort to classic partnerships such as tomatoes and basil. Slice them up, throw in some fresh buffalo mozzarella, and you have a caprese salad, the ubiquitous vegetarian stalwart.

I discovered caprese salads in Germany, as a 17-year-old vegetarian. It became an immediate obsession and I ordered mediocre platefuls of it everywhere I went: rubbery, bland cheese, grainy pink tomatoes, bruised leaves of basil. Farouk of Egypt was purportedly fond of the caprese salad in sandwich form. I'm not convinced that integrity and relevance have anything to do with purity and authenticity, and I know for a fact that neither is required to make a good meal.

Pairings are generally based on tradition, seasonality and regionality. Where and when things grow are part of the unique gastronomic bar code for every place on earth. As with family, foods that originate and grow together are bound by history, memory and collective association. Not all of these families are happy ones and sometimes food will travel before finding another home in a place it can thrive, forging new connections and creating new pairings.

Nature does a lot of the work for us: think strawberries and rhubarb in spring, melons and mint in midsummer, aubergine and peppers in early autumn, butternut squash and tart apples later this season. They go together like peas and carrots.

One thing we hear a great deal about is terroir, which refers to the ways in which the soil, climate and landscape impart special characteristics to the food grown there. I'm sure we've all heard people argue about which country produces the pre-eminent version of a particular dish or ingredient: coffee, tea, tomatoes and chocolate. My favourite roastery in Abu Dhabi carries five different kinds of zaatar from three different countries. Does Lebanese zaatar taste different from Jordanian and Syrian zaatars? Yes, but which is best depends largely on who's doing the tasting. I always thought I liked Lebanese zaatar best until I conducted a blind tasting with several types of Lebanese and Jordanian zaatar and preferred the latter kinds.

For a cook or a chef, freedom of expression can be really important. How those expressions are received is determined by how competently and comfortably a cook abides by pre-existing laws. No amount of skill in the kitchen is going to eke magic out of a January tomato. Similarly, I recently walked out of a brand-new restaurant after being told that the house burger could only be cooked well done. I don't have time to give everything a shot, so it's easiest to just cut out the poor contenders.

The UAE is a country with a few distinct local dishes, but no real integration of those dishes into the contemporary dietary lexicon outside the home. We tend to combine many different cultural elements in our daily bread. Furthermore, the notion of terroir is not entirely applicable here - and that's OK, for now.

Even Slow Food promotes exposure to sustainably raised heritage animals, organic heirloom produce and handcrafted artisanal raw cheeses from outside one's local agro-economy.

This philosophy is rather like a general approach. As a chef friend explained to me while she was giving me a quick primer in pickling, you can create miniature-themed pantries in your imagination to assign to dishes. For example, you can turn the same basic onion pickle into an accompaniment to countless dishes by adjusting the seasonings in the pickling brine: use rice vinegar, ginger and spring onions for a Japanese dinner; fish sauce, lime juice and chillies for Thai; balsamic vinegar and garlic for Italian, nigella seeds (known locally as habet el barrakeh) and white vinegar for Emirati.

Chef Claudia Fleming created a dish of sauté of tomatoes and plums to serve with basil ice cream and mixed pepper tuiles. The recipe is in her book, The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, and I made it three times this summer. And Nigel Slater, who did a segment with BBC Food on the topic of foods that grow together, has a recipe called "An Extraordinary Way With Lettuce", which can be easily found online and combines baby gem lettuces, spring onions, fresh mint, peas and broad beans.