One of the highest compliments I have ever received for my culinary creations was in college by a friend of mine who said I make crappy food taste good.
We are all frequently stuck with unappetizing junk that we somehow are supposed to turn into a meal. This could be because our budget restricts us from buying pristine produce from Whole Foods. Or it could be because we are dumb-asses who forget that those leftovers in the back of the fridge are slowly rotting and that expiration dates DO exist. Or purely because we are stuck in a situation where nothing appears to be edible (like in many airports or small backwater towns where the only place to get ‘groceries’ is from a gas station). Regardless, here are a few tips to turn crap into tasty crap…
I successfully managed to take a bunch of junk found in my kitchen, and gave it the Fed Up makeover, which led to one of the most satisfying snacks I have had in a long…long…time. Yes, this will actually get the coveted Fed Up ‘Best Bite‘ award despite being born from such terrible ingredients.
This is what I did to turn a highly processed hotdog, a pickle, a slice of American cheese, a bit of extremely expired mustard (2 years past the ‘best-by date’) and a stale tortilla into one hell of an impressive looking AND impressive tasting snack.
FACT: Looks are important. Even if the ingredients are complete crap, if the food looks tasty, then it can lead to an enjoyable eating experience. Is this because our mind overpowers our sense of taste? I am not sure. I took the stale tortilla and heated it on grill pan. I rotated the thing 90 degrees mid-way thorough the cooking process to create that aesthetically pleasing ‘cross-hatch’ pattern on the outside. Suddenly the blank-white page of my tortilla had a kick-ass set of grill marks to liven things up.
FACT: Cheese makes everything taste better. Cheese really is all-powerful. Even if it just the humble American ‘single’, a layer of melty cheese not only provides that beautiful taste and smell, but the gooey texture also binds the meal together unifying a bunch of parts into a single harmonious bite. I took the slice of cheese and laid it down on the tortilla so that I had a base to build the rest of the wrap upon.
FACT: Grill>microwave. While the quick convenience of the microwave can be freaking difficult to pass-up; the charred bite you can get from something that is cooked crisp in a toaster oven, on the grill or by the stove definitely overcompensates for the increase in time involved. I could have taken that crappy processed hotdog and followed the instructions branded on the packaging that encouraged me to throw the thing in the microwave. But me, being the stubborn food-obessed fanatic that I am, insisted on turning a cheap piece of protein into the best tasting cheap piece of protein possible by giving it the ‘grill’ treatment. This flimsy, soggy, hot dog suddenly transformed into a smoky sausage with a texture that would provide far more ‘snap’ when bitten into. So once fully cooked, the hot, hotdog was ‘glued down’ to the cheese which melted from the radiant heat.
FACT: Various temperatures and textures keep things interesting. Think about a hot-fudge-sundae or a sour cream topped taco; contrasting temperatures in meals provide a whole new level of edible enjoyment. And the same goes for textures. Perfect examples include crunchy granola on yogurt, or throwing in nuts to give you something to chew on when digging into a pile of mashed sweet potatoes. Multiple textures keep the meal from getting mundane and your mouth is kept busy adapting to each forkful. The cool, crunch of the pickle that I placed in the tortilla contrasted perfectly with the rest of the ingredients in a glorious way!
FACT: Balance is necessary. Nobody like a single monotone flavor note. Even you if you like stupidly-spicy food, the intense heat from a chile pepper needs to be kept in check by other elements of the dish. If balance is neglected, you can be left with a dinner dominated by the fiery spice of a pepper, and all the other flavors will be lost. Paring foods from opposite ends of the flavor spectrum can harmoniously create a balanced meal where the flavor from each ingredient is enjoyed. For a salty element in a meal, a sweet element could then be added to raise the recipe to a whole other level (like how this pizza with goat cheese and salami is balanced out by the figs or how sweet balsamic vinaigrette gets combined with salty feta and bacon in this combo). And vegetarian dinners need something to provide that ‘meaty’ aspect to make a meal not feel like a side dish; so I often add mushrooms which allow for a hearty-chewy-unami meatiness. And to cut through the heavy weight the hotdog and cheese were giving my tortilla-based meal, I knew some strong mustard with its sinus-clearing ability and vinegar base would do a great job of balancing things. (And if you were wondering about how the 2-year-past-expiration-date mustard tasted…FACT: Mustard NEVER goes bad…at least in the Fed Up kitchen.)
FACT: Season EVERYTHING. While natural, locally grown, properly handled produce can be amazingly awesome all on its own; much of the junk we stuff our face with needs a bit of seasoning. The typical tomato you buy from your mega mart is some sort of industrially produced product that is seriously lacking in the natural, juicy flavor you can get from a friendly farmer’s home-grown version. So, YES, there are times when ‘plain’ can be perfect; but more often than not a nice shower of seasoning will add just the right accent to a meal. A quick shake from my garlic-onion-paprika-pepper based homemade seasoning really made the hotdog tortilla creation just perfect. It is amazing how a few sprinkles of seasoning can manage to tie a whole dish together. (And if you REALLY screw up a recipe, a bunch of flavorful seasoning can often cover up your mistakes.)
So remember these ‘facts’ and you too can make bad food taste damn good.