The last time the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators played in Atlanta with both Nick Saban and Jim McElwain coaching, the Tide left in tears as the swamp dwellers went down 32-13. I expect a similar result from this Saturday's match-up.
I didn't want to call them "the swamp dwellers" in that last paragraph for no lesser reason than that I suspect they may take that moniker as a compliment. It wasn't meant as such. What I wanted to call them was "the panhandlers."
Am I the only one that thinks the phrase "Florida Panhandle" is a gross misappropriation of geographical nomenclature?
I get the idea. The Northwest of Florida looks like the handle to the pan of the rest of the state. But for years I thought the opposite. That's because I'm a big picture guy.
In a sane world the panhandle would be the southeastern peninsula of the state. Can I be faulted for hearing the phrase "Florida Panhandle," looking at a map of the United States (minus Alaska and Hawaii) and not assume that the bits of the Sunburn State containing Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Gainesville - y'know, the part that looks like America's handle - would be the referent?
Of course not.
By extension, can I be faulted for anything? Not in any way I can see.
Back in August I spent ten days in the panhandle - the northwestern, less precise one for those wondering. Before heading down I quizzed a few friends that frequented the Destin area, or were at least status conscious enough to have invested in a 30A bumper sticker, about what restaurant to hit for a late wine fueled lunch.
There was an overwhelming consensus as to where we should go.
I don't care too much for affectations, but before deciding on where to eat I had made my peace with the recommended restaurant's cutesy name: Vin'taj.
Actually seeing the place made me reconsider. I was suffering from the worst of a late night poker induced hang-over and not at my most charitable, but still. The affected name was in a highway side strip mall sharing a wall with a Subway. I was having second thoughts.
When walked in, we were not greeted with "Good Afternoon," or "Will it just be the four of you?" or even the simple "May I help you?"
"Hello, friends." said a goatee with a pony tail in a wrinkled short sleeve button up shirt that would have made Sammy Hagar proud.
I braced for the worst.
As it turned out the goatee was going to be one of a team that served as our waiter. He said something about soup and I ordered it, less out of desire for flavor than kindness to my post Jameson filled night nausea.
What arrived was a cold pureed mess of red with a wisp of alfalfa sprouts on top.
First sip: Not bad.
Second: Kinda spicy.
Third: Is that curry?
By the fourth spoonful I was still a bit stomach achy, but fully engaged. I asked goatee to tell me all about the soup again. It was a tomato, watermelon, gazpacho with curry, cayenne, alfalfa, and cucumber slices.
As I continued eating I started to look at my present situation through a new lens.
Creative spelling makes a restaurant stand apart. "Vintage?" Why not just call your place "Wine?" You have to change the spelling, right?
Why wouldn't you find a great restaurant in a strip mall in Destin? Destin is a strip mall. And a glorious one at that.
After the malbec and Rioja recommendations, I realized what a fool I was to think that that guy with the cool goatee and I weren't friends from the beginning.
It was staggeringly good and as I ate, my hangover slipped away. I love Vin'taj.
I made the gazpacho at home several times. It was very easy to recreate.
At one point I started to wonder what it would be like as a Bloody Mary mix. It had tomatoes and spicy spices. What more was needed?
Apparently a lot.
The watermelon was just dreck with vodka and the curry spice doesn't come across as well as the pepper spice we've come to expect with our morning libation.
So why did I tell you all this in a football tailgate post? Because my hangover was cured by a gazpacho from Florida that was absolutely ineffective at bringing about the circumstances that cause a hangover.
That's a theme for things from Florida these days: all defense, no offense.
For those fretting that I've just given you a cold tomato soup recipe for the SECCG though I promised game changing Italian classics, sorry. No more tangents.
Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Sauce
For the Balls:
1 ¼ lb. Ground Chuck
1/3 cup Milk
1 Slice Bread
1/2 cup minced Onion
1 handful chopped Flat Leaf Parsley, fresh
3 cloves chopped Garlic
1 handful grated Parmesan Cheese
1/8 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
For the Sauce
2 28 oz. cans Whole Tomatoes
5 cloves crushed Garlic
1 handful chopped Basil, fresh
Red Pepper Flakes to taste
This can be done for a crowd at home or cooked ahead of time and re-heated at a tailgate either in a pan over a grill or in a crock pot plugged into whatever source is powering that flat screen TV you and all of your friends are watching.
Start by heating the bread and milk together in a small skillet until you have a mush. This recipe is based on the classic from Marcella Hazan (her name be praised) and over the years adapted to fit my particular tastes. She swears that the bread should be "good quality white bread." I've come to think that wheat or five grain is better. Though I'm sure you will enjoy either, keep in mind that while Hazan - doyenne of Italian cuisine - only wrote seven cookbooks, this is my thirty-fourth tailgating post. I think you know who to listen to.
Add the milk mush to a bowl with all of the other meatball ingredients (extra virgin olive oil as needed for consistency) and mix thoroughly by hand.
Form into golf ball sized balls. 1 ¼ lb. of meat seems like an odd measurement to start with, but so many grocery stores are selling in that prepackaged amount that I've adapted my recipe to fit it. This should yield nineteen to twenty meatballs
Roll in bread crumbs and place on a cookie sheet.
Place in an oven preheated to 400˚F for twenty minutes.
While the balls cook, start the sauce. Pour a few glugs of olive oil into large sauce pan or Dutch oven and sautee the crushed garlic. When the garlic begins to color, add the tomatoes, crushed and shredded by hand, with the red pepper flakes and chopped basil. Bring to a boil and reduce to a gentle simmer. Stir often.
After twenty minutes, remove the balls from the oven.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and let simmer for at least twenty minutes.
You'll know the sauce is ready when the parmesan from the meatballs begin to color the sauce ever so slightly with little bits of yellow here and there. Taste and correct for salt, and serve with salad and toasted bread.
For those who are a sitting in the Florida sections:
Pound garlic, anchovies, and olive oil together until you have a paste and spread on the bread. Like a D&D Dragon you now have a powerful breath weapon. Lay the should-be panhandlers (minus Alaska and Hawaii) low with your garlic aspirated "Roll Tide!"
Roll Tide, no injuries, and enjoy. And if you are there, cheer McElwain into the stadium for me. I love that guy.