In recounting my recent San Fran romp, I forgot to mention the truly fabulous, sui generis dinner I had at Jen's house. Yes, you Bernal/Mission dwellers know what I'm talking about: Indian pizza from Zante's, delivered. Although Zante's usually has two speeds--slow and stop--we got our veggie pizza in a trice, the scent of cumin and garlic and cilantro wafting down the hallway like an invitation to the best party ever, about to happen right there in our mouths.
But it did raise a years-long puzzlement: why doesn't anyone else make Indian pizza? There are a few copycat places in SF, but in New York, the birthplace of the next new thing, zip. Much as I love regular pizza, putting Indian food on it--spinach, eggplant, spicy cauliflower, lots of cilantro, cumin, garlic and ginger, plus cheese--makes it about million times better. It's even awesome cold the next day, eaten out of hand straight from the fridge. And I'd love, love some right now. I could call and get takeout from a dozen place right this minute, but the one thing I'm craving is, alas, 3000 miles away. Which is, nevertheless, much closer than K., who is on the other side of the planet, sleeping on a cot but getting good cheese grits every morning, at least.
And speaking of cheese grits, the Park Avenue cooking class at Diane's convened again last night, with a menu of pan-roasted wild quail (shot and field-dressed in Georgia), baked cheese grits, and butter beans with Asian pears, with almond trifle (Bread Alone's splendid almond pound cake, sprinkled with dark rum, dabbed with raspberry jam, and layered with creme anglaise and toasted almond slices) for dessert. All delicious, but the grits were the star, made with lovely coarse stone-ground grits from South Carolina, baked with Cabot cheddar, eggs, garlic, butter, paprika and Tabasco. If you've made this right, the fat from the cheese and butter will ooze out around the edges so that the grits fry themselves into golden crispness on the outside and creamy goodness inside. Mmmm. This is the dish served at every bride's pre-wedding brunch in South Carolina, according to Diane, alongside shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, country ham, and biscuits. I told Diane about K's discovery of the affinity of smoked paprika and cheese grits, and she promised to try it next time.
Clearly, my affinity for grits--not very common in a Jew from Jersey, although my great-grandfather was born in Charleston--has been nurtured by my similar affinity for Southern girls, and butch ones to boot (or in boots, more like.) Jaime from Tulsa was the first to show me how to make her grandmother's cheese grits. Yankee that I am, I came armed with a block of good cheddar. She recoiled, just a little, then apologized. "It's just that you're really supposed to use Velveeta." She also swore that the longer they were in the oven, frying in their own fat, the better they'd be. And they were good. Really good. But K's grits, made on the stovetop with Irish cheddar and Spanish paprika, are even better, because when she's here she cooks them for me. This is the treat all cooks, even just amateur home ones, yearn for: to be cooked for, with concentration and some measure of joy.
Which leads me to Valentine's Day, just around the corner. I have to say, after years of writing where-to-take-your-sweetie roundups for various newspapers, I just haaate all that prix-fixe, two-top, mylar-confetti and passion-fruit-mousse crap. (The exception would be Prune in the East Village, where brazen chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton led her menu one year with a dish called Tongue and Pussy, made from lamb's tongue and octopus. Now that's a girl with the right attitude.)
Valentine's Day, like New Year's Eve, is a sucker punch. Who wants to be surrounded by the inane chatter of other couples, served by waiters who'd rather be with their own squeezes, and overcharged for cheap champagne and too many fiddly amuse-bouches? A meal made (or assembled or ordered in) by the one who doesn't usually do the cooking is the perfect mood-setter for the private delights to come. And what matters is not fanciness but enough of the one thing your sweetheart loves. Those dim-sum shrimp dumplings. Raspberries. Steak. Simple, luscious things. And then, the next day, cheese grits.
Baked Garlic Cheese Grits
1 cup stone-ground coarse grits
5 cups water
Bring water to a boil. Stir in grits, lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until thick and porridge-y, about 25 minutes. They will spit and spatter like molten lava, so be careful. Mix in:
8 oz. cheese, grated
2 eggs, beaten
4 cloves of garlic, minced and sauteed briefly in 2 TB butter
salt and pepper
Tabasco to taste
1/2 tsp paprika or smoked paprika (start with a 1/4 tsp of smoked, and add to taste)
Spread in a baking dish and bake at 400 F for an hour, or until a nice golden crust is formed.
And if you're lucky enough to live in SF, Zante's Indian Pizza--a neighborhood institution--now does citywide delivery. 3489 Mission St, SF, CA. (415) 821-3949.
Just as the numbers on Amazon are every author's secret obsession, so are site meters to bloggers. These little digital turnstiles tell you how many people are checking out your goofy grits obsession by the hour. Even better, they'll tell you how those dear readers got there--whether they googled gay penguins or dirt cake, and what server they used. So hello, happy readers from the Akron Public Library! And you with the Pentagon.mil address, glad to see my tax dollars at work! Surf away! And to everyone at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, howdy! I hope the Army's brushing up on its piemaking skills. Just keep inventing stuff to keep my girl safe, and I'll bring you all the cheese grits you want.