x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The crazy side of cravings

What Nouf Al Qasimi is craving the most is frico; as much frico as she can eat - and then some more.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I'm 30 years older than my 11-month-old niece, but she's got a huge head start on me.

Unlike her, I struggle with certain existential incompatibilities, such as my former refusal to believe that I had been felled by an adult-onset allergy to oysters. And so I continued to eat them, blaming each subsequent and increasingly aggravated reaction on a bad batch of oysters, until I choked on these pearls: no more oysters for me.

I'm reminded of this while watching my niece reach for a bottle of Perrier and take a tiny swig. She flinches as bubbly water splatters and hisses down her onesie. When offered it again, she lunges toward it, eating fire in the face of that hydrodynamic sting. She's actually enjoying it. I like to think that my niece's commitment is genetic, but her taste in beverages most definitely is not. To me, drinking sparkling water feels like drinking needles. And, despite an ill-fated history of flossing with safety pins, I am neither a fan of sparkling water, nor its salty twin, club soda.

As a chronic allergy sufferer, I used to sit around on bad days with a box of Kleenex and a bag of the crunchiest potato chips I could find, multitasking for sustenance and relief. Swallowing to scratch the itch, I'd eat until the chips were gone, and then want more, with a primal hunger that transcended appetite and led to heartburn. I'm pretty sure it wasn't what St Faustina meant when she wrote that suffering purifies the soul.

By now, my soul is almost certainly 98 per cent fried cheese. If all the empirical evidence supports it, then from an evolutionary perspective, I'm less developed than Pavlov's dogs, for whom salivation was a learnt response; I even salivate for envelopes. What I'm craving most, though, is frico; as much frico as I can eat - and then some more.

"OMG," I text my friend Amy, "I just ate all the frico in the house!"

"There's something wrong with you," she responds.

"Why! Because I like frico? What's wrong with frico?"

"Nothing's wrong with frico," she responds, "but I'm sure you've eaten nothing else today - and there's something wrong with that."

Frico, for those who don't know it, is the downfall of anyone who adores the crunchy, lacy, savoury fragments of toasted cheese that stick to the pan after the lasagne or pastitsio has been served. Frico is most irresistible when made with real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a high quality alternative such as aged Manchego, Cheddar or Gouda. Any good, hard, salty, granular cheese will do.

Take one cup of finely shredded cheese and, if you wish, a teaspoon of dried herbs (oregano, basil or rosemary) or spices (black pepper, lightly toasted crushed cumin or fennel seed) and crank the oven up to 200°C.

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the cheese with the herbs or spices then spread it on the tray as thinly as possible. Bake on the middle rack until the crisps just begin to turn gold. Keep a close eye on them: if they brown, the cheese will taste bitter and burnt. Use a spatula to lift the crisps at once from the tray, then transfer to paper towels, or drape them over a rolling pin to get frico that looks like couture Pringles. Then eat on salads, or with bread, olives and sliced meats, or out of your hand as a salty snack.

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

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