Despite growing up in Virginia, I never tasted grits until I was in college. I remember that first bite vividly, because it left me with the impression that grits were truly disgusting. My freshman roommate would make them with her hot pot, and this vile, gluey goo made me swear they would never pass my lips again.
Fast-forward a couple of years, when I was once again duped into trying instant grits — this time doctored with cheddar cheese and butter. Still horrible. Twice fooled, it's a wonder I ever tried them again.
But about 10 years later, I ordered something in a restaurant that came with grits, and my opinion of them took a 180-degree turn. Laden with butter and cream, salt and pepper, these (non-instant) grits were a heavenly corn porridge that I went on to order whenever possible. It's yet another example of the lesson I have come to value most from my food-critic days: There are few food aversions that can't be remedied by putting an offending ingredient in the right hands.
Cleaning out a closet recently, I came upon a cookbook titled Glorious Grits: America's Favorite Comfort Food, sent to me a few years back by the publisher. It occurred to me that while I had grown to love this charming Southern staple, I had never made the jump into cooking grits at home. It's not something my Yankee mother ever cooked. And since my father hails from southern Italy, he had no nostalgia for the polenta of northern Italy.
I decided to take my knowledge of grits beyond what I learned from My Cousin Vinny, or even the sass-mouthed Flo on the sitcom Alice, who regularly told her grumpy boss to "kiss my grits."
Searching for grits in the store, however, proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Anson Mills artisanal grits may seem ubiquitous on modern menus in chic restaurants, but trying to find them in a store turned out to be impossible. According to Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts, that's because stone-ground grits are highly perishable and need to be stored in the freezer. That posed a problem with retail stores, since most people generally don't look for grits in the freezer.
For that reason, Roberts recommends mail ordering them, adding that most mills offer shipping: "When you mail order, you're getting a fresher product, that's for certain."
Another problem is that some brands print "also known as polenta" on the label. That's not only confusing, it's somewhat misleading. Roberts chalks it up to the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't make much distinction between grinds and treatments of milled corn. He says it's a lot like classifying wine: You can say, "These are all red wine," or you can differentiate between red-wine vinegar and a petite syrah. "It's more nuanced if you choose to go that direction," he says. "You have to pick your levels of distinction."
He says corn farmers know the difference, however, since Southern grits and Italian polenta are traditionally made from two vastly different types of corn. How many times it's milled and the fineness of the grind also differ. And then there's the taste and texture: "If you cook it, it's totally different," says Roberts, whose company makes both grits and polenta. "The aroma all the way through the finished dish is totally different."
In a pinch, they are probably interchangeable in most recipes. But if you are looking to gobble a bowl of traditional Southern grits, polenta won't cut the mustard.
As for the difference between yellow and white grits, which get their color from the type of corn that is milled, some say there is a negligible difference in taste, with the yellow grits being sweeter and having a slightly more assertive corn flavor. The white grits are believed by some to have a slightly more delicate taste.
Stone-ground grits are making a comeback, though, despite being tougher to find and having a longer cooking time. For one thing, it is inevitable that those restaurant trends eventually influence home cooks. Plus, many believe the stone-ground versions retain more nutrition and other benefits associated with whole grains.
And with the demand from chefs, a reinvigorated mill industry has sprouted. Even George Washington's Distillery & Gristmill at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Va., is cashing in on the grits trend, selling bags of them in its gift shop and forging a relationship with chef David Guas, owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Va.
"On Saturday, we do sides of grits, cooking them as simply as we can with butter, water and salt, and New York sharp cheddar folded in at the end," says Guas, who hails from New Orleans. "Sunday, we do the same base grits [for] grits and grillades, a very specific New Orleans brunch item."
Both Roberts and Guas like their grits best wearing nothing but butter — "and it's got to be really good butter, preferably butter you just made," says Roberts — but I recommend braving both traditional and uncharted territories with this beloved grain.
Reata Restaurant in Texas is well-known for this recipe highlighting the combination of sweet, creamy corn, sharp cheddar and bright jalapeno -- a match made in Southern-fried heaven. Using quick-cooking grits works fine, but keep in mind that it doesn't allow the jalapeno to cook long enough or infuse the grits with any heat. If this simple, comforting recipe doesn't make a grits lover out of you, nothing will.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 cups water
3 cups heavy cream
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
2 1⁄2 cups dry grits
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Combine the water, cream, jalapenos, salt and pepper in a large saucepan and cook over high heat until the liquid reaches a rapid boil. At the boiling point, slowly whisk in the grits, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Lower the heat to medium and continue to stir. Stirring frequently, cook until the grits are soft and creamy, usually 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the butter and grated cheese. Season with more salt and pepper, if needed. Let cool slightly before serving so the grits can be mounded easily. They should be the consistency of mashed potatoes.
This version of shrimp and grits — one of my favorite grits dishes — was adapted from a Louisiana-inspired restaurant in Washington, D.C., called Acadiana. This recipe isn't as fancy as what you would be served in that dining room, but it's every bit as satisfying. I thought it was rather more spicy (perhaps because of the homemade Creole seasoning) and sherry-laced than traditional shrimp and grits, but my tasters insisted those flavors were what made it stand out — in a good way. If you prefer your heat and sherry to blend into the background, cut the sherry in half and dial back on the cayenne in the Creole seasoning.
Makes 4 servings
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups milk
1 cup stone-ground grits
4 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon for the onion mixture
1 cup onion, cut into small dice
1 cup celery, cut into small dice
1 cup green bell pepper, cut into small dice
1/2 pound tasso ham, julienned
1/4 cup Spicy Creole Seasoning (recipe below)
28 shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 10 ounces)
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Sliced green onions, to taste
Combine the chicken stock and milk in a pot and cook over low heat. When the liquid begins to simmer, add the grits and continue to cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches a puddinglike consistency. The timing depends on the grits, so follow the cooking time on the package.
Meanwhile, in a medium to large covered pan set over low heat, sweat the onion, celery and green peppers in 1 tablespoon of melted butter until tender.
In a separate large pan, saute the tasso ham on medium-high heat until the fat starts to render. Add the sweated vegetables and Creole seasoning. When the Creole seasoning starts to toast and become fragrant, add the shrimp and stir. Cook the shrimp about 2 minutes. Glaze the mixture with sherry, and add the cream and remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Cook until the shrimp are cooked through and the cream is reduced to a sauce consistency.
When grits are finished, stir the cheddar cheese in until it melts. Ladle the grits into a bowl and spoon the shrimp mixture over top. Garnish with the green onions and serve.
Spicy Creole Seasoning
This basic Creole blend comes from Emeril Lagasse, who knows a thing or two about New Orleans cooking. If you are heat-averse, dial back the cayenne pepper.
Makes nearly 1/2 cup
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Combine all ingredients thoroughly.
This recipe comes from Susan McEwen McIntosh's book Glorious Grits — America's Favorite Comfort Food (Oxmoor House, 2009). Adding grits to pie doesn't change it drastically, but it does lend a creaminess and texture that are lacking in the original. Plus, the buttermilk cornmeal crust adds a gorgeous golden color and more sweet corn flavor.
1 cup water
1/4 cup uncooked stone-ground yellow grits
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup corn syrup
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Buttermilk Cornmeal Crust (recipe below)
1 1/2 cups broken pecan halves, divided
Combine water and grits in a small saucepan. Stir and let stand 1 minute. Using a small strainer, carefully remove husks floating on top of water. Add salt to grits, place over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until thick, stirring often. (When cooking this small amount of grits, cover the pan to avoid losing too much liquid as steam during cooking.)
Remove from heat, cover and set aside.
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add sugar and corn syrup, and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until sugar dissolves, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Whisk cooked grits into butter mixture and cool slightly. Whisk eggs and vanilla into butter mixture until blended.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place 1 cup of the broken pecan halves in the bottom of an unbaked Buttermilk Cornmeal Crust (recipe below). Pour grits mixture over pecans in pie crust. Sprinkle with additional 1/2 cup pecans, stirring the pecans very gently to coat with syrup and distribute evenly. Bake for 45 minutes or until set. (Shield edges of crust with aluminum foil after about 30 minutes to prevent excessive browning, if needed.)
Buttermilk Cornmeal Crust
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely ground or sifted stone-ground cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold shortening
1/4 cup cold butter, cut into pieces
4 to 5 tablespoons buttermilk
Combine first four ingredients in a bowl. Cut in shortening and butter with a pastry blender or fingertips until mixture is about the size of small peas. Sprinkle buttermilk evenly over surface, and stir with a fork until dry ingredients are just moistened. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.
Roll pastry to 1/8-inch thickness (about 12 inches in diameter) on a lightly floured surface. Place in a 9-inch pie plate, fold edges under and crimp.
While researching this story, I heard rumors of grits pancakes that piqued my interest. I am powerless when it comes to pancakes. When I get it in my mind to eat some, I won't rest until I am lying on the couch in a pancake coma. Mixing my love of pancakes with my newfound desire to put grits in everything seemed like fate. A Web search turned up this savory recipe for a grits-spiked batter that can be used for pancakes or waffles, created by former food blogger Jennifer Shikes Haines. Naturally, I made (you guessed it) pancakes. Next time, I will probably put more bacon in the pancakes.
Makes 18 pancakes
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup quick-cooking (not instant) grits
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
3/4 cup cold low-fat buttermilk
2 large eggs, separated
2 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, cut into small pieces
1 ounce sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 slices of cooked bacon, chopped
Maple syrup for serving
In a small saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Stir in the grits. Reduce heat as low as possible and cook, stirring occasionally, until the grits are very soft and creamy, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl. Make a well in the center.
Remove grits from the heat and add cold butter, stirring until it is melted and well incorporated. Stir in buttermilk, then the egg yolks. Transfer the grits mixture to the well of the dry ingredients and stir lightly, just until incorporated.
Stir in the cheese and half the chopped bacon.
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, and then fold the egg whites into the batter until just incorporated. This will help to make the pancakes (or waffles) lighter.
Preheat a griddle or frying pan to medium-medium high and grease with butter. If making waffles, preheat waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions.
For pancakes, drop 1/4 cups of batter onto a griddle and cook about 3 minutes per side, then top with bacon crumbles and the shredded cheddar. Serve with butter and maple syrup.
An Alabama-raised friend says she grew up eating casseroles made with grits. This recipe, also found in Glorious Grits (Oxmoor House, 2009), was adapted from a legendary recipe by Patsy Riley, former first lady of Alabama. It's filling and delicious just the way it is, but I'm tempted to play around with this recipe in the future, adding some bacon to the egg mixture before baking — or maybe even some loose sausage. This recipe easily can be doubled for a large brunch crowd.
Makes 8 servings
4 cups milk, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup uncooked stone-ground white grits
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon dried dill, thyme or sage, or a combination of the three (or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs)
1 cup shredded cheddar, gruyere or Swiss cheese, or a combination of the three, divided
3 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine 3 cups milk and salt. Cook over medium-high heat just until milk starts to boil. Gradually whisk in grits and butter. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until thick, stirring often.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove grits from heat. Add remaining 1 cup of milk, stirring to cool grits mixture. Stir in eggs, herbs and half the cheese.
Pour grits mixture into a lightly greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish, and top with remaining cheese. Bake for 40 minutes or until bubbly. Sprinkle crumbled bacon on top of casserole and serve immediately.