x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

1,001 Arabian bites: welcoming fat back into the kitchen

It is not just a question of flavour - this much-maligned colinary component actually has many virtues.

A line from an Emily Dickinson poem reads: "The mind is fat." The mind is indeed fat, both literally and figuratively. Those who read the memos know that fat's faddish nature in the realm of food has a tendency to make heads spin. I consider myself lucky. Fat is not a dirty word in my vocabulary, and I hope it never will be. Conveniently, for those of us who embrace it in its many beautiful forms, fat is in again - and it's not just about flavour.

But before you dismiss me and my fellow fat-fanatics as being naïve, indulgent and unsympathetic, let me point out that I have not always felt this way; with a background in public health and a family history of heart disease, I didn't think I could afford to. But the facts speak for themselves, and the connection between saturated fat, cholesterol, obesity and heart disease has long-appeared to be associative rather than causative.

My memories of childhood are marbled with fat. Some of the images, honed by the mendacious blades of time, border on barbaric. I remember standing, wilful as a puppy, at my uncle's side while he calmly carved off translucent slices from the ring of delicious fat on his ribeye steak, charred from the heat of the grill. I remember a huge meat slicer beneath which my brother and I would hover, heads craned upward to catch the ragged slices of pastrami that our grandmother would drop into our open mouths as if we were baby birds straining for life. I remember the bites of food my father would pass to me with his hand: a forkful of the roasted eyeball, cheek, liver or roe of a fish he had gutted (these were the richest parts, and thus perceived to be the best).

I remember scooping out quivering morsels of unctuous marrow and wondering why there wasn't more of it contained in those big, heavy shank bones; and the moment it dawned on me that bones were actually bones, just like the ones humans have. As adults, we're inundated with information about good and bad fats, but when it comes to fat, differentiating between what's "good" and what's not is sometimes a slick and slippery slope. Napoleon III may have offered a prize to the chemist who created margarine, but in my paradigm, margarine is a cruel punishment. One exception to my no-margarine rule involves the use of organic non-hydrogenated shortening in a recipe for the most sublime fried chicken on earth, called Claritha's Fried Chicken Wings (found in a 1998 copy of the late lamented Gourmet magazine). The recipe, which can be found by a quick search on www. epicurious.com, calls for frying the chicken in a combination of butter and shortening (for its higher smoking point). Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing my sister to the dish, and it instantly cured her phobias both for dark meat and for crispy skin. (After which we held a mock wake in the memory of the skinless, boneless chicken breasts she had so loved before).

Besides shortening, I stay away from fake fats, such as the accidentally discovered Olestra (Olean), whose reputation in popular culture was marred by the widespread publicity for its unpleasant side effects. The fats I do eat regularly include cultured sweet butter, new harvest olive oil (olio nuovo), and raw and toasted nut oils (pistachio, almond, walnut and sesame). Different people swear by different fats for daily use: ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil (delicious and expensive), lard (used widely throughout the non-Muslim world).

A high-fat diet isn't for everyone, as I learnt in 2005 after an arduous apple-cider-vinegar gall-bladder cleanse whose penultimate step involved chugging a large glass of dark olive oil mixed with lemon juice. Afterwards, my liver and gall bladder were so pristine and depleted that the merest thought of oil or butter would cause my stomach to flip-flop. And even with my forgiving attitude towards fat, I have marvelled at Atkins dieters who can subsist on cheese and meat all day long without the contrasting carbohydrates upon which most of us thrive.

Speaking of contrast, it's imperative where fat is concerned. Lamb belly, a newly popular cut by modern western butchering standards, consists of large quantities of sumptuous, ivory fat that begs to be seared to a crisp. When it isn't, it's barely edible, much like the renegade blobs of gelatinous lamb fat that occasionally need to be discarded from the silky shreds of lamb in even the finest shawarmas.

Of the fattiest standard cuts of meat, lamb shoulder is my favourite: robust, inexpensive, and almost impossible to overcook. Use gentle heat, ignore it for hours, and the reward will be a fork-tender, intensely flavourful meal that will convince your family and friends that you're a meat magician. I prefer the flavour of a bone-in shoulder, but my butcher carries boneless, which is easier to serve (no carving required in this case). The shoulder has a distinctive, strong lamb flavour, but lamb from New Zealand and Australia tends to taste milder. But the best and easiest recipe I know is one adapted from Nigella Lawson'sNigella Bites.

Ingredients A lamb shoulder (weighs a little over 2kg)
A few shallots
A head of garlic
Salt
3 cups boiling water To garnish and serve alongside: chopped parsley, chopped mint, chopped tomatoes thinly-sliced red onion, sumac, cucumber pickles, Arabic bread and a bowl of tahini thinned with a little water, and cucumber pickles. Method Preheat oven to 120°C. Put a kettle on to boil with 3 cups water in it (you might need to use as few as 2 or as many as 3, depending on the size of the roasting pan). As the water is heating, brown the lamb, fat-side down in a roasting pan on the stovetop until fat is brown, crisp and beginning to render. Remove shoulder and set safely aside, then fry the garlic cloves in the pan with a generous amount of salt for a minute or two. Pour boiling water over the garlic until it's about halfway up the sides of the pan. Lower in the lamb, fat-side up, being careful not to spill the water. Lawson tells us to allow the liquid to come to a boil, but I'm lazy. I tent with foil at breakneck speed and slip into oven without a worry. Now forget about it for as few as 10 hours and as many as 15. You might even like to throw it in the oven on a Friday night to enjoy for Saturday lunch. I work from home and am much more likely to start mine in the morning so it's ready for dinner.

Remove the lamb from the oven at least 30 minutes before you want to eat it and let it rest. Using two large forks, pull the meat to tender shreds. sprinkle with more salt and eat warm or at room temperature (never cold) with garnishes listed above as a sort of deconstructed shawarma.