x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The belief that all will be well can be a dangerous one

My decision to ignore friend's advice about harvesting horseradish came at a cost.

A few nights ago, while walking barefoot in the dark across my garden, I tripped over a skunk. It was a gnarled and slow-moving specimen, about the size of a house cat and probably quite advanced in age. Miraculously, I didn’t get sprayed; the skunk hissed once and grumbled, then sauntered off and disappeared into the bushes, dragging its bushy striped tail behind it.

From May to October, keeping up with the disposal of windfallen fruit in my garden is an endless chore – and every year, I am shocked when production gets out of hand. Monsoons bring hail in the form of apples, apricots, peaches and plums, which scatter by the dozen across the property, making it the neighbourhood free-for-all where big fat skunks and raccoons coolly stake out their territory like the wizened members of duelling gangs. Deluded about the sustained symbiosis that exists here between me and my pests, I don’t set traps, nor do I hang ammonia-soaked rags from branches or borrow a friend’s dog. Instead I do the domestic equivalent of voting Green: I do nothing.

The willingness to believe that everything will turn out OK, despite all signs pointing to the contrary, can lead us to all sorts of interesting and dangerous places. When I think of some of the hunches and wild hares that have lured me to a new recipe or project in the kitchen, I’m amazed that I’ve managed to survive them all.

At this time of year, I dread the ringing of my doorbell before noon. If it’s too early for FedEx, UPS, or the postman, it’s almost certainly Jehovah’s Witnesses, a county surveyor, or some toothless character who has “run out of gas” and wants to “borrow five bucks”. In the spirit of democracy, I treat them all the same: like they’re peddling rancid snake oil. Yesterday, after I yelled “Go away!” to the shadow behind my gate, I heard Rose, a neighbour whom I’d let in to pick apricots in June, say: “It’s just me, Rose.” She had brought me a basket of prune plums, peaches and summer squash from her ranch up north. Biting off my nose to spite my face is the ultimate act of indiscriminate gluttony, and one I’ve grown to know well.

Last year, some friends and I decided to grow horseradish and harvest it in early April for use in various infusions and marinades. These would ultimately become the main events at a Russian-themed dinner in mid-July. The sole professional chef in our midst warned us of horseradish’s potency and suggested that we might want to reconsider our “more is more” approach to curing, preserving and further improvising therein. Naturally, we pooh-poohed her and forged ahead, which resulted in one of the most obvious and irreversible failures of my eating life; a series of foul, beet-stained sins no amount of sour cream could recover.

Our palates were corrupted by the first sulphurous, fiery mustard mouthful of our mistake. Everything that came into contact with our perverse tinctures ended up tasting like a combination of sweaty cabbage and turpentine. Our dessert that night was humble pie – and it was richly -deserved.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico