Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s Highland’s Bar and Grill suggests garnishing with sprigs of thyme.

Grits – they’re not just for breakfast

Published 12:02am Saturday, April 28, 2012

We have been on the road a lot here lately and have tried several new restaurants. Some were good and some not so good. My husband and I always order way too much food, but you know I just want to try everything!

We were in New Orleans just for the day, and our son Luke suggested we meet him at a new restaurant called Root. Now you know all children want a “free” meal, so we said “OK” and met him there. He had heard that it was good. It is on 200 Julia Street, close to the convention center and has been opened for about four months. Philip Lopez is the co-owner and executive chef, and his goal is to source, prepare and combine fresh and interesting ingredients, in an ingenious, often playful manner. This restaurant is a keeper. I had a stunning course of smoked cornmeal encrusted Louisiana oysters with Andouille spoon bread and Manchego foam. Now, I am not really into foam on my meal, but this was good. It was a dish of great texture and flavor. A lacquered pork belly with charred eggplant puree, stewed local greens, pickled figs, coriander scented grilled Gulf fish, caramelized Brussels sprouts with Benton’s bacon was also on the menu. You get the drift; it was worthy of another visit!

If you subscribe to “Garden and Gun” (a great little magazine), you would have found an article on Wilmington, N.C. Wilmington has never been out front in the world of food like Charleston and Savannah, but things are getting better there. Keith Rhodes, who was on this past season of Bravo’s Top Chef and a James Beard Award semifinalist, is trying to put Wilmington on the map. He opened a restaurant called “Catch” a few years ago, and it did very well. The seafood was always so fresh. He moved that restaurant to another location and opened a new restaurant in the old location called “Phun Seafood Bar.” That is pronounced “fun.” We have eaten there twice, and the food has a lot of great flavors taken from Asian cuisines. I will go back there any time. It was Phun!

Last week we did a trip to Natchez, Miss., to get a truck fixed and decided to drive up the Natchez Trace while we waited, stopping at the markers along the way. You should do that if you are ever near the Trace, which runs from Natchez to Nashville, Tenn. A volunteer at one information site told us about a good restaurant called “The Old Country Store” which was nearby. This place had been written up in “Southern Living” in 2006. It is an old general store with its 100-year collection mostly intact and with about 20 tables covered with tablecloths. The old store is known for its fried chicken, and since I never fry chicken, I was excited. Well, the chicken was OK, but the rest of the meal was just terrible and gave me heartburn. The greens were from a can and had no flavor. The dirty rice was soggy and tasteless. Also, something new to us was the use of cinnamon in cold slaw. Why ever would you do that? Well, we paid our bill and slunk out, really disappointed. Don’t bother stopping there. There are other good restaurants in Natchez.

On a happier note, I got to Birmingham last week. Yes, back to the Highlands Bar and Grill after three years. It was just as good as I remembered. We took our usual seat at the bar. The gin martini was cold with the slivers of ice making it delicious. My husband and I ordered oysters on the half shell (as always) and we ordered the same meal. We get so upset when one might have something better than the other! We had yellow fin tuna with an avocado mousse with a salad of celeriac and shrimp in a leaf of radicchio. Our main course was veal medallions in a wonderful sauce of potato puree and foie gras. I was in heaven!

If you take “Southern Living,” the April issue, gave out the votes for the South’s hottest towns. Birmingham was in the list, and Frank Stitt was given a whole page with a picture of his staff. Our waiter from the previous week was there, and I was so proud of Frank Stitt. He worked in the south of France in 1978 and came back to Birmingham and changed the culinary landscape of the South. His recipe for Highlands Baked Grits was printed in the magazine and is in his first cookbook, Southern Table. It is a winner just like Mr. Stitt’s restaurants.

Highlands Baked Grits

4 servings

Grits

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup uncooked yellow stone-ground grits

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 large egg, beaten

Sauce

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup sherry vinegar

1 oz. country ham, diced

2 shallots, minced

1 bay leaf

1 tsp. dried crushed red pepper

1 Tbsp. heavy cream

½ cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes

2 Tbsp. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Hot sauce

Mushroom topping

½ cup assorted fresh mushrooms, cut into 1-to 2-inch pieces

2 oz. country ham, cut into thin strips

1 shallot, minced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Prepare Grits: Bring salt and 4 cups water to a boil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Gradually stir in grits. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often, 45 minutes to an hour or until grits are thick. Remove from heat, and stir in 2 Tbsp. butter, ¼ cup cheese and freshly ground white pepper to taste. Stir in egg until blended.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Divide grits among eight to 10 (4-to 6-oz.) buttered ramekins; place ramekins in a 13-x9-inch pan, and add hot water to pan halfway up sides of ramekins. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for about 20 minutes longer, or until the tops are crusty and beginning to brown. (I had to cook them 15 minutes more to brown).

Meanwhile prepare sauce: Combine wine and next five (5) ingredients in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, for five to seven minutes or until liquid is reduced to 1 Tbsp. Reduce heat to low; stir in cream. Gradually whisk in cubed butter, one (1) cube at a time, whisking until blended after each addition. Remove from heat.

Pour mixture through a wire-mesh strainer into a small saucepan. Add the Parmigiano and season with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce to taste. Keep warm.

Prepare Mushroom Topping: Sauté mushrooms and next 2 ingredients in hot oil 3 to 4 minutes or until mushrooms are just tender.

Un-mold grits onto serving plates, and serve with sauce and mushroom topping.

This is truly a delicious appetizer. Very Southern, but with a little extra finesse.

Happy eating at home or on the road.

 

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