We Californians live in a foodie-enhanced environment, with the Bay Area serving as ground zero for all things food-trendy. On the whole, I’m very happy to live in such a place. People here appreciate good food, and if nothing else, the emphasis on fresh ingredients has been an unmitigated blessing. Of course you can still pick up a box of Hot Pockets at the local supermarket. But you can also get some of the most marvelous produce you ever saw, and you don’t have to visit a farm stand or U-Pick, either. (Although living where I do, such delightful places can be found hither, thither, and yon.)
However: certain iconic dishes need to left alone, in my humble opinion. Even as artifacts of an earlier, tin-can and frozen-bag American non-food culture, they were and are perfect in their own way. There is no need to re-think or re-interpret them, to fuse them with some other world cuisine, or to gentrify them to near incomprehensibility. Either make them the way they were meant to be made, or make something else.
I offer the humble ice-cream sandwich as a case in point. I discovered an article in the cooking section of a major metropolitan newspaper in which the oh-so-foodie author went in search for the “perfect” ice-cream sandwich. Her verdict? Some overpriced thing with a peanut-cookie crust and ginger ice cream.
Oh, Christ, I thought. If she wants her peanut-ginger thing, bully for her. But I don’t look to an ice-cream sandwich for some special culinary experience. I don’t think I’d even like peanut and ginger together, to tell the truth. Besides, a peanut-cookie and ginger thing isn’t an ice-cream sandwich, which is by definition an uncomplicated comfort food. Which means the perfectly perfect Lucerne ones, with the plain vanilla ice cream and the thin but not sticky chocolate cake-ish outsides. They’re cheap, they’re reliable, and most importantly, they are the true ice-cream sandwich. And you can buy them in boxes of 48 if you want. (Unlike certain bastardized Atomic Age creations from certain continent-encompassing retailers, Lucerne ice-cream sandwiches will melt, and melt very quickly, when taken out of the freezer.)
With the homely but perfect ice-cream sandwich in my Number One slot, I present a few other dishes that I vastly prefer when they’ve been left in their humble and pristine state:
Grilled Cheese Sandwich
There is nothing simpler to make than a classic grilled cheese, and nothing more brutalized by overly-enthusiastic foodie types who can’t leave well enough alone. Here’s how you make a good one: butter one side each of two slices of good, but not exalted, white bread. (I think Oroweat Country Buttermilk is perfect.) I prefer a butter/Canola oil blend for its better spreadability, but margarine would be OK as well. Cover the bread thoroughly, but thinly. Heat up a skillet to medium. While you’re waiting, peel the plastic off two Lucerne American cheese slices. (I’m not the only person who thinks that the Lucerne beats the pants off any other American cheese on the market, and American cheese really is de rigueur for a proper grilled cheese.) Put one piece of bread, butter side down, in the skillet and push it down lightly with the back of a spatula. Lay the two cheese slices across the bread (don’t stack them) and the put the other slice of bread (butter side out) on top. Let the thing grill until the bread is toasty — don’t use too high of heat or the bread will brown before the cheese even gets warm — probably a few minutes max. Peek if you need to. Flip the sandwich and press it down again with the spatula. Cook until done — probably only a minute or two. The cheese will start to melt visibly along the edges. Don’t let it get too brown. Slice it diagonally with one quick knife stroke, and there it is. Serve and eat immediately since it’s only really good when crispy and melty fresh.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t get all creative, and don’t get all high-dudgeon-ish about using American singles. It’s what they’re meant for.
Another plainly perfect dish often ruined by meddling and/or grandiosity.
Here’s what to do: brown a pound of ground beef in a big skillet. Drain it. Pour in a full-sized bottle of your favorite spaghetti sauce. (Mine is Classico Tomato and Basil.) Let it simmer until fully blended. Meanwhile, boil up a batch of spaghetti. Cook it to whatever you like — some people find al dente offputting. Drain the spaghetti. Serve some on a plate with a big ladleful or two of the sauce. Sprinkle parmesan on top. (I don’t like the canned stuff, but you can get nice fresh grated Parmesan at any grocery store these days.)
I’ll allow that there are many different versions of chili out there, but to this elementalist there’s really only true chili, and all the rest are silly upstarts. How to do it: brown a pound of ground beef together with one each green pepper and onion (chopped, of course) in a nice big dutch-oven sized pot. Drain excess oil. Add one standard 16 ounce can each red kidney and black beans. Pour in about 2 standard (8 ounce) cans of tomato sauce and about the same amount of water. You can use beef stock instead of the water — it makes for a richer broth. Add one standard 16 ounce can of diced tomatoes. Add plenty of chili powder — several tablespoons at least, about the same amount of powdered cumin, some salt and pepper (don’t overdo it), some cayenne pepper (ditto), some oregano (ditto) and paprika (very ditto). Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer it for a couple of hours. Check to make sure it has enough liquid and add more if it doesn’t. Check spices about halfway through. Serve with chopped green onions, grated cheese, and sour cream if you want.
Those floppy silver-dollar sized tortillas with a tablespoon of exotica on top in trendy Bay Area restaurants can be quite nice, but I cannot bring myself to call them tacos. That’s because they aren’t tacos. They’re hors d’oeuvres with a mariachi beat. Again the elementalist speaks. This is a taco:
Brown a pound of ground beef in a skillet and drain if necessary. Add one packet of taco seasoning mix and whatever else it says to use (usually tomato paste and water). Cook as directed. Meanwhile, set out a box of crispy corn tortilla shells (nowadays they make some that are flat at the fold so they’ll stay upright more easily) into a baking dish. Put in some of the meat filling, scatter a goodly glob of Mexican-style grated cheese over the top, and pop them in the oven or microwave long enough to get the cheese good and melted. Pour over a bit of taco sauce, then stuff in plenty of shredded iceberg lettuce, and top with salsa and (maybe) a bit of sour cream.
Macaroni and Cheese
Let us have no broccoli or kale or rare wild mushrooms added, no layering with mousselines or spinach soufflées. No experiments with semi-ripened or blue veined or exotic smoked cheeses, no special finishing treatment with a blow-torched Panko top crust. Let’s just make real macaroni and cheese, simple and always fine.
Boil up elbow macaroni. Drain it and put it back in the pot. Grate plenty of mild cheddar into it — Tillamook is good — and then some milk. Stir it over medium-low heat and watch for the texture and color you want; yellow and creamy. Don’t put in so much cheese that it gets stringy. Put in more milk as you need. You’re basically done at that point (some salt is probably going to be a good idea) but, if you want, add a little more milk to make the sauce a bit thinner, put a layer of grated cheese on top, and then put it in a casserole dish and pop it in the oven for 20 minutes or so until it gets melty and crusty on top. That’s it.