Proper Construction

It’s that time of year again–when zillions of people across the country are making a mess of their leftover turkey sandwiches. And that’s a real shame. The noble turkey should never be wasted on an inferior sandwich.

And it’s so unnecessary. We covered the making of a proper turkey sandwich four years ago.

To be fair, the blog had fewer readers then. So if you’re new here, check out that post and spread the word. As a bonus, you’ll get our mindlessly-easy recipe for turkey soup.

But that aside, there’s another sandwich-related problem plaguing America–a worse one, as it strikes at the very foundation of indigenous American cuisine.

As we noted four years ago, mayonnaise is the devil’s condiment. So why has it become the default on hamburgers*?

* Let’s not get into the argument about the ancestry of the burger. Sure, every meat-eating culture has a dish involving ground meat. It’s a great way to use up the leftovers. But the hamburger qua hamburger? American born and bread. (Sorry).

I blame Canada. No, seriously. Forty years ago, Canadians were the only people so lost to virtue as to put mayo on a burger. Today, everywhere in America, if you don’t say “NO MAYO, DAMN IT!” you’re going to get a thick, slimy layer of that white stuff on your burger.

Yeah, a thick layer. Even if I was prepared to accept mayo on the bun–which I’m not–it would have to be as a condiment, like the ketchup and/or mustard* it’s ostensibly replacing, not as an ingredient in its own right. But no, the default is a giant scoop of the evil stuff, outweighing the bun. Heck, I’ve occasionally gotten a burger where I’m fairly sure there’s more mayo than meat.

* You may be surprised to learn that a person of such definitive opinions won’t take a position on the ketchup/mustard debate. The reason is simple: my preference in the matter changes. Some days I want one, some the other, and sometimes both.

It’s a deplorable situation, folks, and it’s only made worse by the ever-increasing tendency for burgers to include lettuce.

I’m not talking about a big wad of shredded lettuce intended to make a fast food burger look as though it’s got some nutritional content. No, I’m talking about an allegedly legitimate food burger with a wad of iceberg big enough to have sunk the Titanic.

Does anybody think this is a good idea? Really. Serious question. Lettuce adds no taste. On a burger, it does two things, neither desirable. It bulks the burger up to the point where you can’t possibly open your mouth wide enough to eat it, and it delivers water straight to the bun, making it soggy.

Really, people, get with it. You want tomato on your burger? Go for it. Onion, raw or grilled? No problem.

But when it comes to lettuce, follow Nancy Reagan’s advice and Just Say No.

And that white, slimy stuff?

Hell No to Mayo!

Not a Health Food

Happy Independence Day. Yes, even you non-Americans.

I’m not saying anyone has to celebrate–especially those of you outside our borders–but why not have a happy day? All y’all, American or not, can enjoy the fact that for this one day our politicians are too distracted with celebration to bother you.

Or if that’s not enough of motivation, try this recipe. It’s been a while since I posted one, and since this one literally fell into my hands the other day, I figured I should share.

Yes, literally. We’re doing a major cleanup-slash-assault on the garage. Many of the boxes we’re sorting through haven’t been opened in more than two decades. Many things are getting donated or discarded*. But some things you just don’t get rid of.

* There were so many old magazines and other papers in the recycle bin last week, we were afraid the truck would tip over when the claw came out to grab the can. It didn’t–but it did creak quite loudly.

This recipe, which fell out of box of assorted papers, is one of the things you have to keep. It’s right in line with my “lazy cook” philosophy, but the results are tasty, indeed.

Cast your mind back to the late 1970s. A time when jogging was popular, Star Wars was huge, and granola bars were chewy.

Oh, you can still buy chewy granola bars, but back then it was the default choice. And so easy to make!

The origins of this recipe are shrouded in mystery. “Some magazine, I think,” was the best provenance my mother could come up with.

Note that these are not healthy granola bars. You want those, go buy ’em. Or find your own recipe, starting with making your own granola. This version is loaded with fat, sugar, and everything that makes junk food worth eating.

It’s also probably the simplest recipe I’ll ever post here.

Gooey Granola Bars

Ingredients

  • 6 cups granola – You can make your own if you want, but that violates the core principle of the lazy cook. Buy it ready-made. And get one with something more than just oats. Dried fruit, maybe, or some interesting nuts. I used Trader Joe’s ginger and almond granola, and the bars turned out very well–though Maggie says it needs more ginger.
  • 1 can condensed milk – The sweetened, sticky stuff. If your store has a low-fat or fat-free version, ignore it. Get the real thing.
  • 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips – Or more. Two cups is better. More chocolate than granola might be excessive. I suggest using a dark chocolate, something with just enough bitterness to contrast with the sugar from the milk. And if you’ve got a local confectionery, hit ’em up for chocolate chunks.

Steps

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F and grease a baking pan with butter. No, not non-stick spray. Butter.
  2. Mix granola and chips in a large bowl, then mix in the condensed milk.
  3. Spread the mixture evenly into the baking pan. Push it into the corners, and pack it tight.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes.
  5. Allow to cool, slice, pry out of pan, and enjoy. Hint: If the bars crumble or compress into cubes when you try to remove them from the pan, you probably didn’t let them cool long enough.

Teasing

If you were hoping for the deep insights that are the usual fare here, you’re out of luck today.

No meditations on the impending end of civilization. No searing critiques of the latest cutting edge triumphs from [Apple|Google|Amazon|Microsoft|Samsung]. No detailed dissections of America’s culinary obsessions.

I mean, yes, it does have matters culinary and technological, and it probably portends the coming apocalypse. But it probably won’t change your life for the better.

Sorry. Better luck Thursday.

So, with that said, here’s the key thought: “This household runs on tea.”

Many people would try to make the case that it actually runs on cat hair, and there’s some validity in that view, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it runs over the cat hair.

Not to be too blunt, but we haven’t found a way to metabolize fur. Which is a shame, really, because if we could, we’d never have to buy groceries again. Though now that I think about it, it seems likely to be a fairly monotonous diet. Sure, each cat’s fur probably tastes a bit different, but we’re going to a have a largely homogeneous mix.

But I digress.

Tea. It’s not that we’re anti-coffee. Maggie likes it and drinks it on occasion. I don’t drink it, but I’ve been known to eat coffee-flavored foods. But for real, day-to-day motivation–read that as “caffeination”–it’s tea.

We keep a variety of blends and flavors around, but naturally we both have our everyday favorites. (I’ll leave you to guess who prefers which. No helpful hints from those of you in the know, please.)

Making tea requires hot water, and microwaving just doesn’t work out for the high volumes* we require. Putting the bag in cold water before nuking produces less than optimum flavor, and adding the bag after the water comes out doesn’t work well either–pouring the water over the bag into an otherwise empty mug is the only way to go.

* Forget those wimpy eight and twelve ounce mugs. We start at sixteen and regularly go as high as twenty-two or twenty-four ounces. We take our tea seriously.

So that means we need a kettle. We strongly favor cordless electric kettles. (A point of clarification: they’re not fully cordless. As with cordless cell phone chargers, there’s a base station which does plug into the wall. But the kettle itself has no cord; it sits on the base station and draws power either via induction or a physical connection that’s shielded from accidental contact.)

We had a scare recently when we thought the kettle which had served us reasonably well for several years had died. That turned out to be a false alarm, but not before we had gone shopping for a new one.

And we discovered there are a heck of a lot of poorly designed kettles out there.

Kettles that give you no way to see how much water is in them.

Kettles that don’t shut off when the water boils.

Kettles that can’t pour without directing steam onto your hand.

We finally settled on this model from the well-known-by-nobody “Chefman” brand.

It’s not perfect. The fill levels are clearly marked, but only in liters. We’re probably not the only Americans who’d like to see ounces or cups. The temperature control can only be set in five degree increments and can’t be set any higher than 212*. Nor is the manufacture all that solid: the high-tech blue LEDs that are supposed to illuminate the water while it heats failed after less than a week.

* Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to set the kettle to use Celsius temperatures to go along with the metric fill marks.

But it works, and quite nicely. The blue light doesn’t actually do anything, so we haven’t missed it–especially because the three-character LCD in the base does a fine job of lighting up the water. The heat and hold function works perfectly: we set the target to 205 and pour the water whenever we’re ready, instead of as soon as it boils. The tea tastes just as good, and we don’t risk it getting cold while we’re doing other things. Very handy for breakfast time.

I thought the built-in (but removable) tea infuser would be a useless gimmick, but when combined with the heat and hold setting, it actually makes very good iced tea. Keep the water boiling while the tea brews, then remove the infuser and let the tea cool before refrigerating.

Unseasonal

It’s been a damned long winter, but signs of spring are everywhere.

I’ve finished my current bag of oatmeal–Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Oats. I don’t insist on the organic variant, but Amazon doesn’t seem to have the inorganic variety–and it’s warm enough I feel no urge to replace it.

The Chron is beginning to run baseball stories that have nothing to do with the As’ attempts to relocate outside of Oakland. According to the latest story, their slogan this year is “Rooted in Oakland”. I’d suggest they reconsider, but since they’ve already filmed commercials using the phrase, it’s probably too late. (To clarify, “root” has several meanings, not all of which convey the sort of message the As probably had in mind. In particular, the Australian slang interpretation makes it a darn good summary of the organization’s attitude towards the team’s fans over the past decade or so.)

And, arguably most importantly, the recent rains have resuscitated our lemon tree. After more than a year of producing next to nothing, it’s suddenly covered in lemons.

Let’s get one thing clear. I know some of you outside the Bay Area are thinking “Whoa, that writing thing must bring in pretty good money if he can afford a house with an attached citrus grove.” Untrue. It’s one tree. And, to be blunt, lemon trees are common around here, only slightly rarer than indoor plumbing. Granted, ours is a little unusual, in that–until the drought took its toll–it produced so many lemons we thought it must be part zucchini. But realty listings don’t even bother mentioning lemons; they’re just assumed.

But I digress.

It’s not exactly the season, but what can you do? When your lemon tree gives you lemons…

So there’s a jug of lemonade in the fridge, made to an exacting, complicated recipe:

  1. Combine one part sugar, two parts lemon juice, and six parts water.
  2. Mix well.

(You can make this at home, even if you don’t have a tree. Do not get packaged lemon juice, especially the kind that comes in a little plastic lemon. The flavor just isn’t there. Buy lemons and squeeze ’em yourself. Better yet, get the kids to squeeze ’em. It’ll keep them out of trouble for a few minutes and give them a sense of accomplishment.)

I know some of you are thinking “Sugar? No, honey!” It’s a valid point. But I’ve never had much luck with honey. It doesn’t dissolve as well as sugar.

And, while I’ve had some tasty honey-based lemonades, IMNSHO the flavor of the honey distracts from the pure lemon-sour/sugar-sweet contrast that’s the soul of the beverage.

Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to Spring Training on Sunday. Have a cold glass of lemonade and enjoy the turning of the season.

A Simple Method for Simple Minds

Since my brain decided to take today off, allow me to present a recipe–or rather, a cooking method–that requires no brain power whatsoever.

This is one of our go-to choices for the end of the week, not just because it’s simply, but also because it’s flexible, tasty, and a darn sight healthier than other no-brain meal options.

I’m talking about salmon.

“What?” I hear somebody say, “Doesn’t that require all sorts of annoying paraphernalia like cedar planks, and finicky cooking over open flames?”

Nope. I mean, you can do it that way, and it’s good eating, but for everyday* cooking, something simpler seems warranted.

* I don’t recommend doing this every day, though I suppose you could. The FDA recommends two meals a week of “fish that are low in mercury” and provides a list that includes salmon. And varying your spices can dramatically change the taste of the fish. But I still think seven meals a week is excessive.

Ready?

Start with the fish. Since we’re going for simplicity, don’t get a whole fish and fillet it yourself. Let someone else do the work. If your local market doesn’t have salmon fillets–fresh or frozen–find a new market.

I’m not going to recapitulate the entire argument about wild-caught versus farm-raised. I’ll just note that the majority of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List’s recommendations for salmon are for wild-caught. And, by the way, their choices overwhelmingly favor Pacific salmon, not Atlantic.

So, start the oven pre-heating to 500.

While you’re waiting on the oven, find a cookie sheet or broiling pan large enough to hold your fillets and a piece of aluminum foil twice as long as the pan. Place the foil in the pan so that it only hangs off on one side. Set the fish on the foil, skin side down.

Here’s the part where you can get creative. Sprinkle the top of the fish with the spices of your choice. We usually start with Old Bay and some dried shallot, then build up from there. Salmon is strongly-flavored on its own, so that might be enough, but we’ve also had good results with coriander and garam masala, a few different barbeque rubs, or thin slices of lemon. Don’t use salt or a spice mix containing salt: that sucks the moisture right out of the fish. Bleah!

Once your fish is well-decorated, fold the foil over the top and fold the edges together. Make sure you crimp them tightly together so there’s no way that steam can escape*.

* Assuming you’re not trying to make salmon jerky, that is. If you want dry, chewy salmon, leave a few openings around the edges of the foil.

Hopefully your oven heats faster than ours; we usually have the fish ready to go well before the oven is up to temperature. If yours is like ours, the time can profitably be spent on a side dish. Rice is a good choice.

Once the oven is hot enough and the fish is flavored and tightly sealed, put the fish in the oven and set the timer for ten minutes. Don’t worry that your fillets are too thick or thin. Only once in our years of cooking salmon this way has it come out underdone, and I can’t remember a case of it being overdone.

When the timer goes off, pull the fish out. Don’t open the foil yet. Let it rest for two or three minutes, then carefully* unfold the foil and serve.

* Very carefully. Hot steam will escape and parboiled fingers will ruin your enjoyment of the meal.

A Guilty Pleasure

OK, let’s take a moment to get real.

Tuesday’s election don’t show that the majority of Americans are racist, sexist idiots.

Nor do they confirm that “Americans want change”.

They don’t even show that we need to get rid of the Electoral College.

What the results really tell us is that 44% of Americans don’t care who governs the country.

According to the estimates of the United States Elections Project, there were 231,556,000 people eligible to vote in the election, yet only 130,840,000 ballots were cast (and let’s not forget that not all of those ballots included a vote for president).

This is not a call for mandatory voting. If people don’t care enough to go to the minimal effort of requesting an absentee ballot, filling it out in the comfort of their own home, and dropping it in the mailbox, they’re not going to go to the effort of studying the issues just because they’ll be fined if they don’t vote.

All I’m saying is that if, after a year and a half of promotion of the election as the most important one in history*, nearly half of the population still doesn’t think it matters who’s running things, then, regardless of the result, we’ve gotten the government we deserve.

* Whether that’s right or not is really irrelevant.

And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about the election.

Moving on to something more cheerful.

This is definitely one for the “Guilty Pleasure” file. It’s also a work in progress.

Our local supermarket sells Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings. They are incredibly tasty. They’re also incredibly bad for me: based on my history of kidney stones, fried foods and high sodium foods are both strongly contra-indicated.

The other problem is that I’m not really crazy about wings. The meat to bone ratio is too low, especially when you’re buying by the pound.

So we don’t have the supermarket product often.

We’ve looked for an alternative, something using thighs instead of wings, and preferably baked or roasted instead of fried. Most of the recipes we’ve turned up have involved crushing salt and vinegar potato chips and using them as breading for the chicken.

Not only is that cheating, but it keeps all of the flavor on the outside of the bird. Great for the skin, less so for the meat down near the bone.

We decided to experiment and work out our own recipe. We took a wing recipe (and thank you, Cheyanne, for coming up with it) as our starting place. It’s been through a couple of iterations, but there’s still some work to be done. More on that below.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs chicken thighs – that’s 6-8 thighs, and you want want bone-in thighs with the skin, because part of the appeal is that crunchy skin.
  • 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tsp kosher sea salt
  • 1 tsp dry ranch dressing mix
  • 1/2 tsp granulated sugar

Preparation

  1. Combine all of the non-chicken ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Ideally, all of the sugar and salt will dissolve, but don’t sweat it if a few crystals are left.
  2. Put the chicken in a Ziploc bag, then pour the marinade over it. Press as much air as you can out of the bag, zip it closed, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
  3. A couple of times during the marination, take the bag out and smoosh the contents around to redistribute the marinade across the bird.
  4. Preheat the oven to 320.
  5. You want some space under the chicken so it’s not sitting in its own fat while it cooks. We use a broiling pan, but a wire rack in a large skillet would do just as well. Make sure the chicken is skin side up.
  6. Cook for an hour (slightly less if the pieces of chicken are widely separated).
  7. Remove from oven and let stand for ten minutes. This will allow the skin to crisp up a bit more.

As I said above, this still needs some tweaking. The salt level is about right, but even thought we’ve almost doubled the vinegar, it still doesn’t have enough punch. We’re considering supplementing the marinade with a light dusting of dried vinegar just before the bird goes in the oven.

If anyone out there has other suggestions, we’d be delighted to hear them.

Uh-Oh

It seems that Cutthroat Kitchen is winding down. Only five unaired episodes have been announced, with the last scheduled for November 30. More to the point, while Food Network hasn’t made an official announcement, host Alton Brown has said he wants to take a break from being a game show host. (Check around the fifteen minute mark for his apology.) And, of course, he wants to devote his attention to a new show.

This is a problem for me.

Remember, the World Series will–barring weather interference–end tonight or tomorrow. No more baseball until Spring. Without Cutthroat Kitchen, my off-season TV viewing choices have been trimmed by a third. I’m going to have to scramble to find something to exercise to, as well as something entertaining to accompany Sunday dessert.

I’m sure something will turn up. If I find something good, rather than something totally mindless, I’ll let you know.

No, not the new show. Which will be Internet-only and called A Cooking Show. I plan to watch, but it sounds like it won’t be starting until after baseball returns. Not much help for the long, cold season ahead.

The new show, for those of you who didn’t watch the video, will be in the same vein as the late-lamented Good Eats. Lest we forget, that was the show that made Alton’s name. But, as he says, there were certain subjects Food Network wouldn’t let him do. Rabbit, liver, gizzards, and venison were early mentions on the list. Later in the video, he mentions sous vide cooking, a cheap homebrew mechanism to roast a whole pig in your back yard, and authentic German pretzels as things Food Network explicitly turned down.

Sounds like it’ll be at least as entertaining as the original Good Eats. But not until next year.

And, in the mean time, we’ve still got at least eight and a half innings of Cubs/Indians.

Here’s a Thought

An open letter to Food Network’s Programmers:

Dear Esteemed Fellow Lifeforms,

My congratulations on the continued success of Worst Cooks in America and Cutthroat Kitchen. While both shows are in my “must watch” list, I can see some room for improvement in both. I hope you’ll take these suggestions as constructive criticism.

One of the recurrent themes on Worst Cooks is the competitors’ desire to improve themselves. How many times have we heard them say that what they learn will improve their family lives? Yet the show doesn’t truly support that goal. By the end of the season, the focus has shifted to preparing restaurant-quality meals and impressing the celebrity judges.

With seven seasons in the can–I’m not including the hideous mistake that was the “Celebrity Edition”–there’s a real opportunity to shine some light on the changes the show has brought to the contestants’ lives.

Let’s have a season that brings back former contestants who were eliminated in the early and middle rounds. Let the viewers see which ones have maintained and improved the skills they picked up on their initial appearances–and which ones have forgotten everything they learned.

Similarly, I and, I’m sure, many viewers would love to see a season made up of former runners-up and competitors who were eliminated in the last couple of weeks. We keep hearing the mentors and judges describing the food they produce as restaurant-quality, and we’ve even heard judges give them job offers. That’s a huge amount of improvement, and it would be fascinating to see how many of the contestants who reached that level have accepted those offers or taken other food-related jobs, and how well they’ve kept up their skills.

How about it?

As for Cutthroat Kitchen, after eleven seasons, the premise is starting to get a little stale. Everyone knows what to expect, to the point where the opening recitation of the rules is becoming increasingly perfunctory–why bother explaining the game when the competitors and viewers can recite the spiel along with Alton? It’s time to shake things up a bit.

The defining feature of the show is that, unlike other competitive cooking shows where the chefs are essentially working in isolation, on Cutthroat Kitchen they’re competing head to head. It’s not just about creating the best dish, it’s doing so while fighting off interference from the other chefs.

But the current structure of the show reduces the amount of interference as the episode progresses. We’ve reached the point where we know the chef with the most money remaining in the final round will win the first auction and then not have enough left to avoid losing the second auction. Where’s the thrill in that much predictability?

So less ramp up the possibilities for interference. Don’t eliminate chefs.

Instead, award points to the chefs who produce the best dishes–two points for the best dish, one for the second-best. Let the chef who came up with the least credible effort remain in the game, but penalize him or her by taking away some money, say $1,000.

Even if someone fails miserably in the first two rounds, they could still win it all with a spectacular final round–and if not, they can still make life more difficult for the front-runners by buying sabotages and playing spoiler.

At the end of the game, total up the points. Highest score wins. In the event of a tie, the winner is the chef with the most money left. And we have so much more potential for drama: late surges, creative work-arounds, and grudge-sabotaging.

I realize it’s too late to implement this idea for Season 12, since the first episode will air later this week. But lucky number 13 is coming. What better time to inflict even more misery on the chefs?

Versatile Sauce

Peanut butter is good. But what else can you do with that jar of peanuts sitting in your pantry? Aside from just munching them whole, I mean.

How about a very versatile peanut sauce?

We’ve got one we’ve been using for thirty years, give or take. It’s an excellent dip for vegetables, goes well on grilled beef and chicken (try marinading the meat with lemon juice, soy sauce, and ginger), and makes a spectacular pasta sauce (use a noodle with plenty of folds: shells, rotini, or bowties). However, I don’t recommend it in PB&J–unless the J is pepper jelly.

It keeps well in the fridge for several days. Make a big batch and use it on sandwiches with grilled meat and pickled vegetables one night, and over pasta a few days later after the flavors mature.

The recipe is adapted from one in Cynthia Wine’s Hot & Spicy Cooking. The book came out in the mid-80s, so new copies don’t come cheap–that link says they start at $88. After three decades, I don’t think Cynthia would be too offended if you picked it up used.)

Our version has evolved over time; here’s the current version:

Ingredients

  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup shelled, roasted peanuts – depending on your dietary restrictions and mood, you can use salted, unsalted, or flavored. We’ve had excellent results with chipotle- and barbeque-flavored nuts. Err on the side of generosity: the nuts are the star of the dish, after all.
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 to 3 cloves minced garlic – or more, if that’s what floats your boat.
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon crushed dried red chiles – approximate measure here, and to taste. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to use up those packets of pepper the pizza delivery place insists on bringing.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice – yes, fresh. I know I often encourage laziness in cooking. This is not one of those times. Buy a lemon and squeeze it yourself; don’t use the bottled stuff. Ever.
  • 1/2 cup water – tap water is fine, don’t feel you need to use bottled–unless you’re in California, in which case, please use a brand bottled outside the state. There’s a drought on, you know.
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil

Preparation

  1. Using your favorite blender, grind the peanuts. Don’t try to get it too smooth. Even if you prefer creamy peanut butter, leave a few small chunks of nut to add some texture.
  2. Combine all the ingredients except the peanut oil in a small saucepan.
  3. Simmer for at least fifteen minutes. You’ve got a lot of latitude here. It should go long enough for all the ingredients to combine and thicken slightly, but not so long that it turns into a paste.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut oil.

PB & ?

Something a little different from the cynicism of the past couple of weeks.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is arguably the centerpiece of the classic American lunch. If you grew up in the U.S., you probably can’t begin to count the number of PB&Js you’ve eaten. There’s a reason for that success: the combination of the rich, slightly salty PB wraps the sweetness of the J; at the same time, the tart aftertaste of the J cuts the unctuousness of the PB. Complementary pairs.

You’ve probably got your favorite variation, the one you go to automatically; the one you eat every day for a week without a qualm. White bread, chunky peanut butter, and grape jelly. Whole wheat, creamy organic, and homemade ginger-apricot jam. But no matter how much you like your favorite, every so often you need a little variety, right?

To my mind, one of the most fascinating things about the PB&J is that most people are only willing to consider changing one of the three ingredients. Change the bread? No way. Change the peanut butter? Are you insane‽ In both cases, people might reluctantly change brands, but not the style. Fans of crunchy will turn up their noses at creamy. Those who prefer a “natural” peanut butter flee from pre-stirred varieties.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for experimentation with the “jelly” element. Even the change of mouth feel in switching from jelly to jam can be enough to satisfy your desire for novelty. Apple jelly is different from apple jam, and apple butter is different from either.

But what if you want to go further? Break from convention, abandon the J, and let your taste buds roam free*? What combines well with the immutable pairing of PB and bread?

* OK, that’s a disturbing image.

You could try marmalade. You could. I won’t stop you. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it, though. It would take an unusually strong peanut butter to stand up to marmalade and make a balanced PB&M.

Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.

Honey–Sometimes you just want to rot your teeth*. Honey cranks up the sweetness level beyond the ability of jelly, without the guilty feelings that sprinkling your sandwich with processed sugar would bring. And there’s as much variety in flavors of honey as in jellies.

* Let’s face it: 90% of us are never going to brush after lunch.

Cream cheese–Feeling sugared out? Try cream cheese. Not one of the abominations that come mixed with smoked salmon, chives, strawberries, or, God help us, pumpkin. What are you, sick? Just a simple, pure schmear. It works better with crunchy peanut butter, so you get a bit of textural contrast, but even with creamy PB, the slight bite of the cheese plays nicely against the smooth legume.

OK, the floor is open. What do you all use when you want to break free of the standard PB&J?