Being a Midwesterner, I never ate grits and I definitely ran from polenta. Researching this story opened my eyes to the world of grits, which has expanded far beyond its traditional Southern stronghold. Just like heirloom beans, heirloom grits are in a class of their own, and while I still don’t think I’d sit down and eat a bowl of grits with butter, I do now enjoy them as a side with shrimp, short ribs or pork.
Posted on Tue, Feb. 14, 2012 01:00 PM
FYI | FOOD
Homey grits are quickly becoming restaurant stars
Freshly milled and carefully cooked, the classic Southern dish shines.
By MARY BLOCH
Special to The Star
Ask a Kansas Citian how to smoke meat or what burnt ends are, and you’ll elicit a well-educated response, if not a dissertation. Settling on the barbecue sauce may incite a riot, because people are so passionate about their favorites, typically derived from years of sampling.
But if you ask how grits are made, or whether they prefer white or yellow, you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. Some may tell you they like or don’t like grits but, unless they are Southern transplants, that will probably be the extent of their input.
Yet based on a perusal of menus of restaurants throughout the metropolitan area and beyond, grits are experiencing a resurgence. And this phenomenon is hardly limited to soul food restaurants or those specializing in Southern cooking. Grits grace plates at Bluestem, the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, Webster House and Chaz, all upscale restaurants where one is used to encountering foie gras or molecular gastronomy, not necessarily “pedestrian” food such as grits.
Since a close encounter with grits may be imminent, here’s a primer to enhance your understanding of and appreciation for this centuries-old dish.
What are grits?
“Grits have long been a signature food of the South; it can even be argued that they are America’s first food,” according to an article in the October 1999 Smithsonian magazine. “The Powhatan Indians introduced the earliest Virginia settlers to porridge made from cracked grains of maize.”
John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance based in Mississippi, is an expert on all things Southern. To him, grits are not just a dish; they are a fundamental part of Southern culture.
“Grits are one of the most elemental expressions of corn,” Edge says. “If you think about corn reduced to its bare essentials, you have corn meal, corn flour and grits. They’re simple, straightforward American foods. Corn has sustained the South and a goodly portion of America since it has been cultivated as a crop.”
As with vegetables, heirloom grits are making a comeback. They utilize corn seeds that were cultivated long before industrialization. To preserve their heritage, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina has made it his mission to grow near-extinct varieties of corn.
Roberts had enjoyed a 30-year career in restaurant and hotel concept design before his passion got the best of him. He sampled corn throughout the South and was aided by an anonymous grower who passed along the corn he grew.
Roberts discovered that the best corn was tied to bootleggers, who for generations had survived on their proficiency at distilling corn whiskey. Instead of buying seed from a local co-op, they saved seeds from their own crops from one year to the next.
According to Roberts, a high density corn called “dent” is a cut above the rest. “Dent is longer and pointy, and has many rows — 24 to 36, where you normally see only a dozen,” Roberts says.
He uses Carolina Gourdseed White, a classic Southern dent corn dating back to the late 1600s. The corn variety is soft and easy to mill. After starting with 12 varieties of heirloom corn, Roberts now grows 30 varieties.
Traditionally, the best grits were considered to be those milled in the winter, a process called cold-milling. Cold-milling refers to the temperature of the mill’s stones.
Roberts creates winter temperatures year-round inside his mill by chilling the stones and mill room. The process begins at a frigid 10 degrees below zero.
“Even with this chill factor, the grits exit the mill at 50 to 55 degrees,” Roberts says. “In warmer months if you start at room temperature, the milling process creates hot grits of 115 to 150 degrees. At that temperature, the dry mill corn is essentially being cooked inside the mill, which pulls the flavors out and ruins the final product.”
At Anson Mills, orders are produced in small batches and shipped out immediately to retain freshness. Just like herbs, Roberts emphasizes, corn grits lose their flavor if allowed to sit out for a long period of time.
But growing and grinding heirloom corn is not limited to Southern states.
In Loring, in Wyandotte County just north of Bonner Springs, Mark Meinke has taken up the cause. Starting with four ears of corn dating back to 1880 called Greenfield 114 (the 114 refers to the number of days from the time of planting to harvest), Meinke now farms five acres of corn. Meinke sells his grits only to restaurants.He invested $2,000 to buy a stone ground mill that uses two 8-inch stones and runs on electricity, generating 50 pounds of ground corn per hour. “I just bought the machine and started playing with it,” he says, adding he simply wants to keep heirloom corn alive. “Anything that has lasted since the 1880s is a pretty neat thing.”
White or yellow?
Early settlers from Europe focused on yellow corn to increase yields for animal feed. But white corn possesses more mineral and floral nuances than yellow corn.
“Yellow says robust flavors on the front palate, with nuttiness and mineral flavors on the back palate,” Roberts says. “White says mineral, floral, dairy, nut nuances on the front palate, and roasted corn flavor on the back palate.”
Flavor differences, however, may not be as important as color. Chefs generally prefer white grits because they are more versatile as a color scheme. Yellow can often conflict with the color of the food.
Are grits and polenta the same?
Polenta is primarily made from flint corn, a much harder variety than dent. “It all depends on particle size,” Edge agrees. “Corn is ground into corn flour, cornmeal, grits and polenta, with polenta being the biggest grind.”
John Martin Taylor of Charleston, S.C., who is known in culinary circles as “Hoppin John,” adds a dash of flavor to the lesson.
“The same thing is true in Italy that is true in the States: If you want tasty, whole-grain, stone-ground heirloom polenta, you have to go to a good miller,” Taylor says via email. “Culinary historians, horticulturists and growers are now discovering and growing other old heirloom varieties. I have heard arguments amongst Italians about what corn and what grind is right for polenta. But it’s all just ground corn.”
Where have all the good grits been hiding?
To answer these questions, a short history lesson is in order.
Edge attributes the decline in popularity of grits to the post-World War II era, when the sourcing of goods moved from local to regional to national.
“Consumers began to rely upon the Quaker brand instead of patronizing the farmer down the road or the grits mill in the next town,” he says. “That continued right into the 1980s, when the resurgence began as a result of the efforts of advocates like John Martin Taylor and a few others who started growing near-extinct varieties of corn that pre-date the Civil War.”
“In 1986, when I moved back to Charleston to open my culinary bookstore,” Taylor writes, “there was not one single restaurant in the entire state serving stone-ground, whole-grain, heirloom corn in any form — not grits, cornmeal or corn flour.
“I could not find any whole-grain grits anywhere, except perhaps in a couple of natural foods stores, where they sat on shelves with no milling dates, stale and full of bugs. I set out on a mission to find whole-grain grits and cornmeal, from the right kind of corn, grown the right way, and ground the right way, without bolting (sifting).
“Much of what I advocated — fresh, local, traditional — fell on deaf ears. It was several years before I could get a restaurant in Charleston to serve shrimp and grits. Little by little, though, people caught on. By the time my first book, ‘Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking’ (Houghton Mifflin), was released in 1992, I had grits customers in all 50 states, and grits were being served not only with fresh, local shrimp in the Lowcountry, but all over the country, with all sorts of toppings.”
Unlike the previous generation that was content to eat so-called roller mill, library paste-style grits, a new guard of chefs began looking for the best ingredients they could get their hands on and reinterpreting them in new ways.
“The renaissance came in tandem with a revival of old guard grist mills and a new breed of chefs who drove an awareness of the coarse ground grits produced in those mills,” Edge says. “The mills are the supply chain and the chefs the interpretation chain in this resurgence.”
Today, Americans eat about 100 million pounds of grits annually, and that’s not all consumed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Restaurants across the country now serve heirloom grits milled in the South. In fact, grits are eaten in every state of the Union, usually by Southerners who have been transplanted there.
“Grits are Southern but also American,” Edge says. “They are not a backwoods provincial dish that is only found in the South.”
Why is this modest dish suddenly showing up on local restaurant menus?
Grits and shrimp is still considered a Southern standard, but contemporary recipes are elevating grits. Although old-time Southerners may argue that grits are best plain or with butter, diners with more sophisticated palates insist on a touch of creativity.
These chefs “have done their homework and understand the origins of shrimp and grits before riffing on it or reinterpreting the dish,” Edge says.
The popularity of Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem is emblematic of this wave. A native of Scandinavia, he first found acclaim with his upscale Nordic restaurant Aquavit. In 2010, he opened the Red Rooster to pay tribute to the roots of American food. Patrons can’t seem to get enough of his red shrimp and grits.
The grits comeback has been aided in part by corn millers who have made a concerted effort to teach chefs how to cook this Southern specialty. Colby Garrelts, chef/owner of Bluestem, attributes his love affair with grits to Roberts’ tutelage.
“They are marvelous when you cook them correctly,” Garrelts says. “Coarse-ground grits are so much better than the fine-ground grits that taste like porridge, and, of course, putting good cheese and dairy in them makes them awesome.”
Garrelts also appreciates the versatility of grits. They go with chicken, meat or fish, but his favorite is with anything braised like short ribs, and veal or lamb shanks. This aficionado loves the rich meat with creamy grits, finished off with a bit of gremolata on top.
The late chef John McClure of Starker’s on the Country Club Plaza was the first chef to feature Mark Meinke’s corn on his menu.
Chef Howard Hanna of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange places a weekly order to Meinke, who grinds the corn according to the restaurant’s specifications. “It has great fresh corn flavor that most polenta lacks, and a wonderful toothsome texture,” Hanna says.
And there is one point on which the experts agree: Preparing grits takes a long time, but it’s worth it.
You may even want to give Garrelts’ routine a try: “The first project in the morning is to turn the double boiler on and get the grits going.”
Anson Mills Coarse Grits
Created in the tradition of the stone-ground, hand-milled grits of the antebellum era, Anson Mills coarse grits have a large particle size that does take time to cook — about an hour, at least — but they are any cook’s first choice when served as a stand-alone dish or as a complement to entrées such as fish, greens or eggs. They make beautiful grits cakes, too.
Makes 4 to 6 side-dish servings
Time: In a slow cooker with no overnight soak, 2 hours and 10 to 15 minutes; in a saucepan with an overnight soak, 50 minutes; in a saucepan with no soak, 90 minutes
1 cup (8 ounces) Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Grits (white or yellow)
Spring or filtered water
1 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a (4- or 5-quart) slow cooker: Place the grits in the cooker and cover with 3 cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the vessel, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover the slow cooker and turn the heat setting to high. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about 2 hours and 10 or 15 minutes. (Cook times may vary slightly depending on the capacity of the individual cooker and its heat settings.) Season with 1 teaspoon salt and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.
In a saucepan: Place the grits in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover them with 2 1/2 cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the pan, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, and let stand overnight at room temperature. Note: If you have not soaked the grits, cover them with 2 1/2 cups water, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls as directed above.
Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups water in a small saucepan and keep hot. Cook the grits, covered, over low heat, stirring every 10 minutes or so and adding small amounts of the hot water to the grits when they become thick and the spoon can stand upright, about 1 1/2 cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 or 90 minutes, depending on whether they were soaked. Add 1 teaspoon salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, uncover the pot and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.
Slow cooker vs. saucepan: John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, endorses using a slow cooker. It offers gentle, moist and well-insulated heat, and it’s not necessary to soak the grits before cooking. Slow cookers also eliminate the need for additions of hot water and regular stirring.
Edge uses a 5:1 ratio of coarse grits to water, puts the mixture in a slow cooker set to low and then leaves it overnight. He eats a bowl of grits the next morning with butter because that is the best way to experience their “straightforward earthy, sweet corn flavor.”
If you’re cooking grits in a saucepan, it would be remiss of us not to mention that Anson Mills grits improve enormously when they are soaked overnight in water before cooking. Not only is the cooking time shorter, but the finished texture of the grits is also superior — the corn particles experience less trauma during cooking and hold their shape in the pot.
Don’t rush these grits. If you do and the grits boil, their aromatic oils will emulsify, coat the larger particles of corn and prevent the particles from softening in the water. They’ll take even longer to cook.
Per serving, based on 4: 209 calories (27 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 34 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 470 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Source: Kay Rentschler, www.ansonmills.com
Shrimp for shrimp and grits
“This is what most Charlestonians think of as shrimp and grits,” John Martin Taylor writes. “The secret to a non-pasty gravy is to cook the flour, which takes about five minutes. You’ll need to start cooking the flour before you add the shrimp, because they don’t take as long to cook. This is the real thing. For the best flavor, make a simple stock from the heads and/or shells of the shrimp.”
Makes 2 servings
1 cup (1/2 pound) peeled shrimp
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
3 tablespoons bacon grease
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
About 1/4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup hot water or stock (shrimp, chicken or vegetable)
In a bowl, sprinkle the shrimp with the lemon juice, salt and cayenne and set aside. Heat the bacon grease in a skillet and sauté the onion and pepper over medium heat until the onion begins to become transparent, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir constantly for about 2 minutes, until the flour begins to brown. Add the shrimp and about 3/4 cup water or stock, stirring constantly and turning the shrimp so that they cook evenly. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through and the gravy is uniformly smooth, thinning with a little extra water or stock if necessary. Serve immediately over grits.
Per serving (without grits): 343 calories (58 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 193 milligrams cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 279 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
John McClure’s New Orleans BBQ Shrimp and Polenta
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup polenta
1 1/2 cups milk
16-20 medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
5 tablespoons salted butter, divided
2 tablespoons seafood seasoning
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup green onions
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/4 cup beer (Pilsner works best)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Mix the polenta and milk in a medium heavy-bottomed, nonstick, oven-proof saucepan. Cover and slow cook in the oven for 1 1/2 hours at 200 degrees. (Polenta is done when corn kernels are fully absorbed and it holds its shape on a wooden spoon). Take out of the oven, stir in 1 tablespoon of butter, and salt and pepper to taste.
Approximately 15 minutes before the end of the polenta’s cooking time, heat a large sauce pan until it’s very hot. Drop the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter in the pan, and turn the heat down to medium-high. Once the butter has melted, add the seafood seasoning, rosemary, shallots, garlic and green onion to the pan and mix together. Add the Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, beer and lemon juice, and stir. Add the shrimp, and reduce the sauce by half, about 5 to 7 minutes. Halfway through the reduction process, flip the shrimp over so both sides are equally cooked.
Remove from heat.
Divide the polenta into 4 plates or shallow bowls. Top each with 1/4 of the shrimp, and spoon over the sauce.
Per serving: 358 calories (11 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 179 milligrams cholesterol, 49 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams protein, 392 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Mary Bloch is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City. Her blog is AroundTheBlockKC.com.
Posted on Tue, Feb. 14, 2012 01:00 PM
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