x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Seasonal suppers, whatever the weather

Comfort food can come to the rescue no matter what the weather outside.

"Corn, tomatoes and oysters." That was my father's classic response whenever I asked him what he'd like for dinner after arriving in Cape Cod. We spent summers there when I was growing up and I suspect that our extended family's annual consumption of fresh, local corn on the cob single-handedly sustained the local corn-farming industry. By the time the corn season was over, we were all sick of it. As for the oysters, they were OK in August, when countless tourists bellied up along the coast and sucked the briny bivalves down with sides of corn, but they were far tastier during the winter, when there was nobody around to eat them. Some seasonal bounties just show up late to the party, it seems.

Whether or not we grew up with snowy winters, the storybook fantasy of a frosty holiday season marked by smouldering fire pits, worn-out ponchos, and endless crocks of French onion soup, can stir proleptic nostalgia in even the most seasoned - or season-phobic - warm-weather dweller. Do we have internal clocks that crave synchronicity with the outside world? Personally, I love the changing of seasons. I am particularly fond of autumn, and for some time now have made a point of spending at least a few days each year in a place where I can witness the changing of the leaves.

As with the way our height was once measured during annual physical exams against the paediatrician's doorjamb, these autumnal sojourns have become an integral step in assessing the ebb and flow of another year's cycle. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, autumn is all about the smell of green chillis roasting. Many people mistakenly believe that it's warm here year round, but they're wrong. It's not yet Halloween, and already snow clings to the ground and the mountains are capped with fresh powder.

At this time of year, coffee shops in both Santa Fe and the Emirates have begun offering timely specials of spiced cider, hot cocoa, and quasi-liquefied dessert drinks modelled on traditional holiday desserts such as gingerbread. Largely thanks to the huge expatriate community, seasonal comfort food is no stranger to the Emirates. But it isn't just familiarity that stirs longing. The right fable or family film can inspire wistful pangs in the hearts of any sentimental fool; I remember obsessing over exotic-sounding dishes like pot pie, pot roast, and anything involving the word "casserole". The winter evenings of my girlhood were spent reading the food sections from Little House on the Prairie while crouching near a space heater in my bedroom in Abu Dhabi. I'd routinely nod off midway through a pie recipe, only to be woken by the scent of smoke from my singed hair.

What the Emirates misses in lacking four distinct seasons, it makes up for in having incomparably delicious winters. In If I Told You Once, the writer Judy Budnitz tells the story of an unnamed European town so grey that "the colour of an egg yolk is something of a miracle". I've been to that town's Arctic twin, but in my version of the story, it was summer, and I was in the northern Yukon, where, in the perpetual daylight, I developed a spell of insomnia so fierce that it led me to hallucinate. Because of the town's remoteness, the only perishable items in the local market were green bananas, my least favorite fruit.

My body's chemistry was off balance; I wanted salad, or at least some indication, besides bananas, of what was going on agriculturally elsewhere in the world. I wasn't hardwired for the shock of this hybrid summer spring. Most people who have lived in the Emirates for any length of time have had the pleasure of having friends or family visit. The first time we had cousins from the US visit us at home was in the mid-1990s and we were all teenagers; mall-hopping in Dubai seemed an obvious goal. We wandered around Wafi Mall, then modestly sized, and I remember trying to absorb the endlessness of pan-Arabian Santa Clauses, stuffed camels complete with reindeer antlers, and cheesy turns of phrase on the topic of Christmas in the desert.

Although I've since become desensitized, the mere suggestion of Ski Dubai can resurrect my distaste for the gimmicks and ersatz culture of my Wafi-era nightmares with resounding vigour. To a certain degree, my cravings are dictated by what's seasonal, but they are also determined by what's locally available and a function of good old-fashioned hunger. Although I may long for lobster rolls while on the Cape, one of the first things I do after arriving in the Emirates is place an order for shawarma - hardly a seasonal dish, definitely not a local one, but a favourite.

There are plenty of wonderful and widely available winter foods that I will happily eat the way I eat corn in August and, luckily, they tend to be high in the vitamins and minerals our bodies need most, no matter where we live. In the markets, look for a spike in sunny citrus, squash, pumpkins and mangoes. Stock up on root vegetables such as turnips and rutabagas (swedes), and eat all you can manage in the way of dark, leafy greens such as escarole, dandelion greens, chard and kale.

There are a few bracing and refreshing things that can be done with winter produce that are suited to a warmer climate, but a great soup is hard to beat, and don't skimp on the spice. It's long been claimed that eating spicy foods cools the body by causing us to break into a sweat. Because Muslim holidays fall during different seasons over time according to the lunar calendar, much of the Muslim world lacks a strong association between specific seasonal foods and religious holidays.

It's a far cry from the world outside my door, where one can wander into a Walgreen's pharmacy and guess the time of year just by glancing at the colour of the seasonal packaging on the Peanut Butter Cups. Seasonal promotions are a big deal everywhere, and that's probably a good thing, unless your idea of a good time is one where candy canes and pumpkin lattés are available year round.