The best thing you ever tasted.

People, what is the best thing you ever tasted?

I ask because you are likely with your families right now, or other people you love.  At least, I hope you are.  Are any of you still working?  Do me a favor.  Walk over to your boss, and kick him/her.  Then, proceed to the nearest exit.  Yay!

Anyway.  When we’re around the people we love, we tend to eat really well.  I think this happens for two reasons.  A) Preparing good food is, for many, an expression of love, and B) from the eater’s side, we actually let ourselves linger over what has been cooked for us.  And, lingering is a key component of eating well.  A component I fail at, grandly, but a component all the same.

This is me, “cooking.”   I’m pretty sure I burnt this.

Here in Austin, we are blessed with a really thriving foodie culture.  There is much enthusiasm with little snobbery.  Perhaps it’s because we are a relatively new culinary center, and truth be told, are still probably quite far off from being a New York or a San Francisco.  I mean, I guess?  Those two are always held up as THE American eating cities, but is that just the rich people talking?  Could be.

However, let’s assume for now that San Francisco and New York host some badass chefs (fact) and diners who actively seek out amazing food (fact).  The difference between places like those, and places like Austin, is — I think — an issue of play.  We take food seriously here … sort of.  All I have to say is “food trailer,” and you know what I’m talking about. 

Still.  What those cities have over Austin, probably, is a set of vigorously practiced culinary traditions.  Tradition is powerful.  It is very comforting.  As we near the holidays, you are likely spooning up big mouthfuls of tradition as I write this post.

Food “play” and food “tradition” are two different concepts, and the reason I bring up tradition, juxtaposed against play, is because you get so much of the latter, dish-wise, when you eat out.

But the former?  Tradition?  That’s not just San Francisco or New York.  That’s Mom.

* * *

My mom makes these cheese grits that will bring you to tears (of joy).  She’s making them for Christmas in a few days, and they might be the best thing I ever tasted.  Each bite tastes like a mythical South I want to visit, only more decadent — more naughty.  The top layer of her grits always has a glistening, gooey layer of cheese on top, sheathing the buttery mash below.

In other artery-clogging delights, my dad used to make me this breakfast that he learned in Vietnam, and because it’s so bad for you, we don’t really eat it anymore.  But S.O.S, or, “Shit on Shingles,” is one of those warm tradition foods that totally sends me back.  I remember thick, white sauce, mixed with sausage, poured over Bisquick biscuits.  Such a dad dish.  I loved it when I had a little bit of sauce, and a little bit of biscuit left, and could run the biscuit through the middle of my plate, soaking up the creamy remains. 

Getting to know your favorite foods is no small thing.  It says things about you, your family, the way you treat yourself, the way you deny yourself.  And all the time, we have to keep our favorite foods in such a delicate balance, lest we get sick of them.  Like grilled chicken salad.  Right, dieters?

Things get old.  We have to veer away from our favorite foods, just for the joy of coming back.  So maybe our favorite foods are also our special foods, things we save for occasions, like holidays or birthdays or second dates.  It’s corny, but I believe true, that when something has been prepared with love, you can taste the love specifically.

* * *

So what is the best thing you ever tasted?  Here are some of mine.

1. My mom’s Browned Brussels Sprouts.  I have a fierce, passionate love for brussels sprouts.  I think they are incredibly tasty steamed, plain, and because I am joined with roughly 2% of the population in this opinion, they are never out-of-stock at the grocery store.  But!  To make them truly mind-blowing, I do what my mom does:

Steam the sprouts first, then when they are “al dente,” transfer them to a sauce pan with a generous amount of olive oil.  Saute until brown with lemon pepper.  Lots and lots of lemon pepper.

And then … you eat them.

It’s 5-year-old easy.  But so damn good.

So NOT my brussels sprouts, but I wanted you to get an idea of what we’re talking about here.  (And, pine nuts?  Genius).  Thank you SlashFood for the image. 

2. Ross’ Ostrich/Lamb Cranberry and Feta Meatloaf.  I am incredibly fortunate to be married to one hell of a cook.  And because of this I don’t mind that he watches Giada de Laurentiis with slack-jawed attention, because GUESS WHAT, I get to eat her food.  It’s a win-win.

Anyway, Ross takes Giada’s recipe for Turkey, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Feta Meatloaf, and tweaks it.  His version contains the afore-mentioned ostrich and lamb meat combo, since ostrich is incredibly lean, while lamb is incredibly rich and oily.  He combines equal amounts of both in the mixing bowl, and together, the two balance out each other.

Then, he subs out sun-dried tomatoes for dried cranberries, although I’ve had it with tomatoes before, too, and that is super delicious. Sometimes he adds other crazy things in it like cherries, or curry, or raisins, because meatloaf is accommodating that way.

When he’s all done, we totally murder that meatloaf.  Nothing has ever made me feel so gleefully carnivorous as that big pan of baked meat.   Meatloaf has a reputation as “unsexy” food, and it’s true — it’s not much to look at.

This is probably the most flattering shot you will ever see of meatloaf.

So, if you make this dish, just close your eyes and take a generous, greedy bite.  Don’t look, just taste. 

3.  A dessert at Uchiko called Tobacco Cream.  Ok, I’m cheating.  This dish can obviously be had only by going out, and falls firmly in the “play” (vs. “tradition”) camp.  And you’re probably not going out to eat anytime soon, since it’s the holidays, and if I had my wits about me I would try to tell you about a peppermint or gingerbread some-such … but, look how pretty!

(Thank you to Orthogonal Thought for the photo.)

Uchiko’s Tobacco Cream is made out of choco­late sorbet, maple budino, huck­le­berry, scotch.  Does anyone have any idea what “maple budino” is?   I do not.  All I know is, I ate this during Austin Restaurant Week, and silently freaked out.

Such an aggressive dessert, underneath that pretty presentation.  Smoke, and dark chocolate, and liquor.  Not everyone is a fan of the savory/sweet thing in desserts, but I AM.  Big time.  Give me your salted caramel macchiato, your rosemary apple pie, your bizarre cigar/chocolate dessert inventions!  I’ll savor them all!

And you?  What is the best thing you ever tasted?  Ironically, I’m reading a book right now by the same name — The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, by Sallie Tisdale — but I’m afraid to report it turns rather whiny at the end! 

But, she did inspire the post, after all.  So cheers, Sallie.