The trend toward taking basic comfort foods and "gourmet-izing" them isn't new. In 2006, the New York Times was already lamenting the addition of "complex blends of pungent, unaged, rind-washed and cave-ripened cheeses" to basic macaroni and cheese across the city. "These are all indisputably glorious cheeses. But they do not all belong in a casserole dish," Julia Moskin decried.
And while I tend to agree with Moskin that some things are good enough on their own without additional fussing -- gilding the lily, as it were -- I like a good gourmet mac 'n' cheese with white asparagus tips and shaved black truffles as much as I enjoy a blue box of Kraft.
On the other hand, there are foodstuffs which should always be left alone. No matter how epic you're trying to make that burger as you load it down with foie gras and edible gold flakes from Japan; it's probably going to end up tasting the same or -- more likely -- worse than a Double-Double from In-and-Out.
So here's our list of when to go gourmet with your goodies and when to leave well enough alone. Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.
Peanut Butter & Jelly: LEAVE IT ALONE
Is this classic childhood experience really enhanced by the addition of the seven-grain quinoa bread and the blueberry preserves you bought at the farmers' market? By the almond butter you ground yourself at Central Market? Not really. The only real question when constructing a good, old-fashioned PB&J is this: crunchy or creamy?
Mac 'n' Cheese: GO GOURMET
Yes, it's a casserole. But it has the potential to be so much more than that. Pasta and cheese -- of any kind that you choose -- is a blank slate, a template for you to build upon. It's delicious in its own right, but so is buttered rice. And no one looks at you funny for throwing more than salt on top of your buttered rice. So go nuts with that mac 'n' cheese and see what you come up with. (Warning: It's already a fatty, heavy dish, so keep the additional ingredients on the less lardy side for best results.)
Green Bean Casserole: LEAVE IT ALONE
If Alton Brown can't make this Thanksgiving go-to taste any better than the old Campbell's-and-French's-onion dish, there's not much hope for the rest of us. And, really: It's the only time of year you're going to eat it, so just relish the antiquity and blissful cheesiness of the casserole in the same way you relish the antiquity and blissful cheesiness of certain family members.
Grilled Cheese Sandwich: GO GOURMET
Like mac 'n' cheese, a grilled cheese is as delicious on its own -- made with two slices of buttered white bread and a pallet of Velveeta -- as it is made with goat cheese, caramelized onions, pears and walnuts or brie with apricot preserves and pine nuts. Add meat, vegetables, fruits; use different breads; use as many cheeses as you can buy from the tiny cheese bin at Whole Foods. (Seriously, the tiny cheese bin is amazing.) You can't go wrong.
Hamburger: LEAVE IT ALONE
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with fancy burgers that are topped with fried duck eggs or chicken fried bacon and fried green tomatoes. If those toppings sound familiar, it's because they're from local Houston restaurant Burger Guys. I like the Burger Guys. I like their fancy, gourmet burgers. A lot. But given the choice between a burger topped with foie gras and something simple like the Boss Burger from Zelko Bistro, I'll go for the simple choice every time.
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Grits: GO GOURMET
Go ahead and top your grits with sugar if you must. But there's a lot that can be added to enhance your bowl of warm goodness: shrimp, crab, lobster, bacon, scallions, cheese, paprika, avocado, corn, caramelized onions...the list goes on. Grits are an empty canvas begging for a creative touch.
Ketchup: LEAVE IT ALONE
Do you know how difficult it is to make ketchup? It takes a lot of time and a lot of tomatoes. And the results usually don't yield anything that's remotely identifiable as ketchup. That's why Heinz (and, to a lesser extent, Hunt's) has such a corner on the ketchup market: it's tasty and consistent. We are conditioned, as a society, to expect a certain flavor from our ketchup. And if it tastes even slightly different, people will pitch a fit. (Just ask the poor fellows at the Burger Guys, whose ginger-tinged ketchup is delicious, albeit lost on the masses who angrily demand "real" ketchup on a regular basis.) If the idea of consuming ketchup that contains HFCS bothers you, buy some without it. Just don't try to make fancy ketchup yourself; it's not worth it.