The moment always comes right after.
It sounded good at the time, right? You just needed a quick fix, and work's been absolutely insane this week, and really just this one time, it'll be fine, nobody has to know. I don't need it, I just can't continue without it.
I get it.
But with that "it" comes the second "it," the "oh god what have I done" it, the moment where you find yourself looking down at one of those magazines full of adult people wearing not-adult diapers or a recently heated and completely voided heroin spoon. In this case, the spoon was full of something far, far more sinister.
It was full of American cheese. Pre-sliced, individually wrapped, American cheese.
Yes, I needed the sweet, melty fix that is mac & cheese, and I needed it at a moment's notice. In a way it was worse than any of those other vices, because nobody's going to tell me mac & cheese is wrong. Nobody's going to bash down my door in the middle of the night or set up an intervention where I walk in a room to a pile of boxes of uncooked pasta and a couch full of disappointed faces. It's just me. Me and the cheese.
And yes, just like heroin, this will fill your veins with stuff that makes you feel fantastic while slowly inching you closer to death. I don't recommend actually injecting it, though.
I'm torn on the whole slow-cooker thing.
On the one hand, it's amazing. You take a giant slab of dead animal, add some barbecue sauce and spices, and eight hours later you have sheer deliciousness for nearly zero effort. Or oatmeal. I hear you can make oatmeal in one of those things too.
On the other hand, it feels like cheating. All those Rachael Ray acolytes squeal their way through the grocery store magazine racks because they find recipes that are SO easy to do at home. It only takes minutes of prep! It's so easy! Just take out your fucking cerebral cortex and get cooking!
So yeah, it's a trade-off. Effort for glory. You get the tasty end result, but none of the credit. No, that goes to the slow cooker. Thank the chunk of porcelain with a coil heater under it, not the cook with years of (admittedly half-assed) experience. Luckily, I don't have a sense of pride, and this particular slab of dead animal is really good over rice and vegetables, so I think we're going to be just fine.
I like to think I'm an open-minded kind of guy. I listen to other people's viewpoints; I try damn near any food I can put near my mouth; I even let people get through the whole YouTube song they wanted to play for me before I tell them their musical taste is complete shit.
I'm a downright egalitarian.
But there are a few things that I absolutely, positively will not budge on, and this is one of them:
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are far superior to oatmeal raisin cookies.
I will go to war on this point. There'll be knives flying through the air and Anderson Cooper will be there rescuing refugees from my kitchen. We're talking full, nationwide coverage, people.
And here's the reason: Oatmeal cookies are already chewy. That's the whole point, and that's what makes them so delicious. It's all the warmth and softness of a bowl of oatmeal in your hand. Raisins are ALSO chewy. They're chewy as SHIT. So when you put two and two together, you get the goddamned chewpocalypse in your mouth. It's boring, uni-textual cookie snores. Yawn.
Chocolate, on the other hand, breaks up your cookie experience, both literally and figuratively. You get that nice, gooey pull-apart effect you see on those excessively food-porny close-ups on the Nestle Toll House commercials, and you get the silky texture of chocolate to break up the rougher oats. It just works, people.
Plus, it's fucking chocolate. And green tea frosting. What more explanation could you possibly need?
When the side dish takes the main stage, it can be a little weird. When you're sitting in front of a huge, glistening, vaguely suggestive sounding slab of porterhouse, it usually doesn't matter what's sitting on the plate next to it, even if it is covered in and/or filled with several types of cheeses.
But every once in a while, a side of mashed potatoes or perfectly-crispy sweet potato fries is so good that it makes that delicious beef basically non-existent. Invisible. And even though, when you're the one with the apron on, you probably planned out the meal so that the guests didn't shove a plate of bacon-wrapped asparagus into their faces before they even touched the beef wellington, sometimes the forces of flavor are just too powerful. Sometimes the side dish is so damn good it becomes the entrée.
This is one of those sides.
This is something that made me look a filet mignon with port reduction straight in the eyes and say, "Nah. I'm going home with this one." Then I sat next to those roasted vegetables with dijon béarnaise and we had our own glasses of port. And maybe a small game of footsies underneath the table. But a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell. Especially when it's with a plate full of vegetables.
There's an art to planning the perfect party food.
It has to be tasty enough to get people talking, but easy enough to eat that drunk people won't burn themselves/others/your house in the process. There has to be enough of it for people to get seconds or thirds or fourths, but not so much that it takes up the entire counter.
Like I said, it's a process. But the moment when it comes together, when everyone in the room is talking over and surrounding your food? When the thing that's holding conversations together becomes those shared plates of scotch eggs or devils on horseback?
But pouring soda over giant slabs of meat is pretty cool, too, so let's do that.
Necessity isn't the mother of invention. Neither is hope, brilliance, ambition or anything else you'd find on one of those cheap-ass motivational posters in a dentist waiting room. Know what it really is? Boredom. Boredom is the mother of invention.
Think about it: When the first guy to invent the wheel thought of the damn thing, do you really think he stood up and yelled "Eureka!" (or the caveman-ish equivalent). Or do you think he sat there and thought "Man, transporting heavy things like this is a pain in the ass, I'm tired of it. Wheel."
Not that I have any measure of conclusive proof, but that's probably how it went. Same with gun powder ("I'm bored of nocking arrows"), the guillotine ("Drawing and quartering people is a pain"), and pretty much everything else.
And, yes, that extends to cooking, too. Especially cooking. Every sauce, condiment and preparation was made because someone was bored with the stuff they were eating, because they were bored with the way things were. Sure, the Thomas Kellers and Ferran Adriàs of the world really did come up with some fucking genius stuff, but I guarantee the thought they had before that was "I'm tired of eating fish the same way I always eat fish."
That's how I came up with a lot of these recipes, this one included. Hell, that's why I learned to cook in the first place. I was bored. I was standing around my kitchen and thought "I'm bored, I'm hungry, I have a pear."
And there it was.
Oxtail marmalade's a weird idea. I'm aware of that.
And it sucks to be in the club of people who like something that tastes really good, but sounds utterly disgusting, because it's your job to convince other people why that awesome, delicious goodness isn't actually something you'd find in a trash bag behind an Arby's. Or just ... in an Arby's.
So yeah, when you make something like oxtail marmalade, and have to explain that it's essentially meat jelly, it's a bit of a hard sell. But you want to make that sell. You want to be the fucking Willy Loman of slow-cooked meat products, because you know how goddamned delicious it is. It helps when you put it inside some dough, too. I find that helps with selling most things, really. I mean, you'd be more likely to buy an iPod if it came inside a cookie, right?
I like food rituals. A lot of people are jumping all over this "comfort food" thing these days, and I can't argue with it. Food's good, and food that makes you feel like you're at home is even better. But a lot of people forget (or fail to realize altogether) that it ain't just the melted cheddar or matzah balls that makes you feel good; it's the ritual.
Maybe you only eat your chicken noodle soup in that one beat-up Space Jam bowl you've probably had way too long, or you always have to sit on the couch and throw on some Jeopardy with your mac and cheese. Point is, that stuff matters. You know as well as I do that it just isn't the same if you're eating that stuff like you'd eat anything else. You got to get in the mindset if you want to really feel at home, since ... well, since that's the damn point.
That's why I made tea cookies this week, because that's my ritual, and it should be yours, too. Tea, cookie, book, couch. Steep yourself in that deliciousness and drift away for a couple minutes.
We've been down this route before, people. Rather than throw down another rant about granola-heads and their antioxidant-huffing ilk, let's brighten things up a bit. Let's talk about the good side of granola, the positive side.
Granola can be anything you damn well want it to be. Want to make it super-healthy and pump it full of flaxseed and dried superfruits? Do it! Want to cover your granola with chocolate and maple syrup and make it sugary and crunchy as the dickens? Do that, too.
The glory of granola is in its simplicity. You're pretty much just shitting a bunch of oats and sugar into a bowl, stirring it up, and toasting it in the oven for a few minutes. Mindless, brainless, but delicious.
And yet calorie-counters and soccer moms by the freaking thousands are buying $15 dollar bags of the stuff in droves, just because it's on a wire shelf at Dean & Deluca and has the word "organic" written on it in Helvetica roughly 4,000 times. Fuck that. Take an hour, put the power of granola back in your hands, and give those Williams-Sonoma type execu-chefs something else to rip you off with. Like that $80 French pastry sampler I'm totally not ordering right now.
We have a weird culture of naming food-related things. First, there's the low-bar version - the TGI Fridays version, if you will - where every menu item has to scream itself at you and replace a bunch of s' with z's to make itself sound super cool, since apparently the marketing execs at these places think all of their customers come directly from Warped Tour in the late '90s. Here, you'll see such Guy Fieri-poisoned dishes as "Jack Daniels Kickin' Chicken Bitez" or "Dave's Super Hot n' Crispy Jalapeno Jammers." They always have to be in a convenient, bite-sized form so you can shovel them in handfuls at a time, and they always have to belong to a person (Dave's!) or liquor (Jack Daniels!). God for-fucking bid they should just exist as regular pieces of food.
Then there's the high-brow shit. Instead of telling you what genius in the back room of an Arby's decided to name your combo meal, these fancy places like to softly whisper the entire history of every ingredient in your meal to you. We can't just have a steak with a cocoa-rub marinade, oh no. It has to be "Grass-Fed Oregon Free-Range Gently-Petted Prime Rib with Malaysian Dusted Cocoa Powder That's Been Excavated Out of the Tomb of a Dead Prince." I don't want a damned novel, I just want a steak. Is that so hard, you Michelin-starred bastards?
In that super long-winded way I love oh so much, that's why I decided to make a spice cake this week. Because it's simple - it's a cake, it has spices in it. Done.