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Southern staple gets ‘fancied up’ for dinner

Writing in The New York Times on Jan. 31, 1982, Mississippi-born Turner Catledge provided a succinct history of grits in the South.

“Grits is the first truly American food. On a day in the spring of 1607 when sea-weary members of the London Company came ashore at Jamestown, Va., they were greeted by a band of friendly Indians offering bowls of a steaming hot substance consisting of softened maize seasoned with salt and some kind of animal fat, probably bear grease. The welcomers called it ‘rockahominie.’ The settlers liked it so much they adopted it as part of their own diet. They anglicized the name to ‘hominy’ and set about devising a milling process by which the large corn grains could be ground into smaller particles without losing any nutrients. The experiment was a success, and grits became a gastronomic mainstay of the South and symbol of Southern culinary pride.”

Grits are so common now days it is routinely served for breakfast whether asked for or not. Grits can be flavored with butter or gravy, salt and pepper, hot sauce, served with sausage, ham, bacon and eggs. (My mother-in-law ate sugar on grits! Yuck! She must have had a Yankee ancestor somewhere.) They can be baked with cheese, sliced cold or fried in bacon grease.

Mississippi-born Craig Claiborne, the late New York Times food writer, loved grits and published elegant recipes for their preparation. By the mid-1980’s a new generation of Southern chefs including Bill Neal from Chapel Hill, N.C., and Frank Stitt from Birmingham, began serving sophisticated dishes with grits, such as Stitt’s grits soufflé with fresh thyme and country ham. (Given below.)

There is a big difference in taste when comparing stone-ground grits to the “quick” type in the grocery store. South Carolina cookbook writer, John Martin Taylor, helped popularize stone-ground grits, and producers of artisanal grits grew into successful businesses, including Old Mill of Guilford (North Carolina), Falls Mill (Tennessee), Logan Turnpike Mill (Georgia), Adam’s Mill (Alabama), Anson Mills (South Carolina), and War Eagle Mill (Arkansas).

Many grocery stores do not carry stone-ground grits, so check a health food store or some farmers markets, or order them on line. Stone-ground grits should be cooked in water not milk, for a pure corn flavor. Some cooks finish the dish with some cream. This makes the grits too rich for many — but not me.

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes for grits, both by Frank Stitt, in his cookbook Southern Table. He uses Arrowhead Mills organic yellow grits from Birmingham’s health food store.

Creamy Grits

Serves 10 as a side dish

4 cups water

1 ½ teaspoons Kosher salt

1 cup yellow stone-ground grits

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, or a little more if desired, at room temperature

¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano, or a little more if desired

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Hot sauce, such as Tabasco

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the salt, then whisk in the grits in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly to prevent clumps and thoroughly mix in the grits. Bring to a boil whisking, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 45 minutes to one hour, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until the grits are thickened and tender.

Add the butter and Parmigiano, stirring to combine, then add salt, white pepper, and hot sauce to taste. Taste and add more butter, cheese, and/or salt if desired.

Highlands Baked Grits

Serves 8-10 as an

appetizer

(As Frank Stitt says, “Don’t even consider using “quick” grits in this recipe.”)

For the grits:

4 cups water

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

1 cup yellow stone-ground grits, preferably organic

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

1 large egg, beaten

For the Sauce:

½ cup white wine

½ cup sherry vinegar, or to taste

2 shallots, minced

1 bay leaf

1 dried red pepper

1-2 ounces country ham (trimmings, end pieces, and scraps from the shank are fine)

1 tablespoon heavy cream

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Juice of ½ lemon, or to taste

Hot sauce such as Tabasco

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 thin slices country ham or prosciutto, cut into julienne strips

½ cup mushrooms cut into 1-2 inch pieces (can use shiitake, oyster, or morel mushrooms)

1 shallot, minced

Thyme leaves for garnish

In a large heavy saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil. Stirring with a wooden spoon, add the grits in a slow. Steady stream and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened and tender, 45 minutes to one hour. Remove from the heat and add the butter, Parmigiano, and white pepper, stirring until combined. Add the egg and stir to incorporate.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter eight to 10, 4-6 ounce ramekins.

Divide the grits among the buttered ramekins; place in a baking pan, and add enough hot water to the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with 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.

Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan, combine the wine, vinegar, shallots, bay leaf, chile pepper and ham and bring to a boil. Cook until only one tablespoon of liquid remains. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cream. Whisk in the butter bit by bit, adding each new piece as the previous one is incorporated.

Strain the sauce into a saucepan. Add the Parmigiano and season with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce to taste. Keep warm.

Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the julienned ham, mushrooms, and shallot and cook until the mushrooms are barely tender, three to four minutes.

Unmold the grits onto serving plates and turn browned side up. Ladle a little sauce around the grits and top with the mushrooms and ham. Garnish with thyme leaves.

Note: The grits can be baked up to 1 hour ahead and set aside at room temperature. Reheat on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven until warmed through.