“These grits taste funny. They’re really good, and I am on my third helping, but they taste funny. How do you make them taste like that?”
The answer at What’s for Supper is goat cheese. Lots and lots of goat cheese.
I can’t remember when I first started adding chèvre to grits, but it has become our standard whenever the taste of the grits needs to be a major part of the dining experience. Which is to point out that grits are almost always a tasty side dish, if made correctly. Instant grits in hot water with margarine is not what I mean by correct.
I use non-instant, non-quick grits, first of all. Those that require 20 minutes or so to cook. Then, I cook them in milk and cream to a fairly dry, not soupy, consistency. This means they will stay where you put them on a plate, and not spread out. A spoon inserted in the center of the pot will remain bolt upright, supported by grits.
After they are cooked and seasoned, we add butter and one or more logs of good chèvre. We let these meld a bit and finish with more heavy cream. You won’t get any thinner eating a batch of these, but you will be very satisfied.
If you pay attention to food as you’re eating it, you may notice that the first bite of something good is the best. Your tastebuds react to all the flavor, your mouth enjoys the crunch or smoothness or other texture of the food. The next bite is almost as much fun, but now you know what to expect. By the tenth or eleventh bite, that’s gone. In fact, if you’re honest about it, you really aren’t tasting anything, you’re just eating.
This is not an original thought with me, though in my experience it is really true. The tenth potato chip, the tenth spoon of ice cream, the fiftieth cashew and you really don’t taste anything. You’re just eating. It’s the American way. Our portions are huge, our plates are too big and we’ve trained ourselves to clean our plate and eat every bite. And we are very large people.
There’s an alternative in the trend to small plates and simple bites of great food. Thomas Keller’s great restaurant, the French Laundry, is based on the premise that a succession of tiny portions, timed and paced so that the last lingering of the first exciting morsel is just starting to turn to the need for another when the next item appears. In Keller’s case, it’s all wonderful, prepared with an exactitude that leaves you marveling (particularly if you read some of his recipes). And, it is paired with the perfect wine. The experience of a lifetime.
So next time when you find yourself gorging on a pile of fries, or a hamburger half the size of your head, pause and consider whether you’re tasting anything, If you’re not, then don’t keep at it. Believe me, another bite won’t be better.
Warm, comforting cauliflower with cheese and tomato sauce.
As the weather begins to cool, the leaves to fall and night to come earlier, the body and the belly crave warming food. And when you think about comfort food, the food your mama used to make when you came in from playing outside, your thoughts and cravings naturally turn to cauliflower, right? No? Well, in our family it did. All of us were treated, or subjected (depending on your age and rank in the family) to the cook’s (that would be me) love for cauliflower, tomatoes and cheese.
I first found the dish in a vegetarian cookbook, though not one that advocated low-fat, no-animal-product cooking. The cauliflower is broken into florets and dumped on top of some sautéing onions then stirred over high heat with lots of pepper and lots of dried basil. When just starting to soften, crushed tomatoes and a little red wine are added. The cauliflower softens a bit more. Then, you make a simple béchamel with butter and flour and milk, stir in lots of grated cheddar and add to the mix. A sharper cheese, like an Italian Pecorino, makes it nicer.
I was surprised at how good this turned out the first time I made it. After the fiftieth on sixtieth time, I know what to expect. This is food that beckons you back to the pot on the stove after you’ve finished the portion on your plate. And, it’s really a healthy thing to eat. You should try it sometime. It’s delicious and you’ll be all warm inside.
If you’re by yourself in a city where you’ve never been, where no one knows you, and you’re tired, hungry, and in need of a glass of wine, where do you go? Do you get in your car and drive to the nearest chain? Do you wander downstairs to your hotel’s restaurant – often convenient to its karaoke bar? Do you, heaven forbid, eat fast food? By no means.
Here’s what you do: you find out the name of the finest restaurant in town, and you go in. Unannounced. No reservation. You don’t need no reservation! You’re sitting at the bar.
The experience is more often than not delightful. You get served a drink immediately – no trivial matter if you are in need. There is a good chance that you’ll be seated next to interesting and garrulous people, and you can dine.
Think about it. You can’t be a bartender in one of these places without being one of those wonderful people who have a highly refined sense of the needs of others – in this case you. They are fast, attentive, careful to keep your glass full and right there when you need them to be.
When I was traveling often, I had wonderful bar meals at wonderful restaurants like Spiaggia in Chicago, Gary Danko in San Francisco and Spago in Los Angeles. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, I did it again. This time at the Woodfire Grill. This restaurant gets local food in season and prepares it like southerners. Southerners who happen to be incredible cooks. They have an outrageously good wine list, weighted towards French and other old world wines, and they know what goes well with what. I tried their tasting menu with wines paired for each dish and found the interesting and garrulous people I had hoped to meet. In this case, we became friendly enough to share a taste of each of our separate dishes.
So the next time, you see a solitary soul staring at his drink at the bar. Don’t feel sorry for him. He’s having the time of his life!