RITZY GRITS: A DOWN-HOME STAPLE GETS CLASS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Grits -- they're not just for breakfast anymore.

DOr, to be more specific, they're not just for the kinds of breakfast enjoyed by good ol' boys called Bubba who drive around in pickups with gun racks in their rear windows and coon dogs named Blue in back.

As the previous paragraph attests, those not born in the heart of the Southland can be snooty about grits.

Many Northern types share the views expressed by a former Miss America, who was rash enough (and on a visit to Georgia, yet!) to sniff "What are grits? It sounds so awful!" (The New Yorker's comment, naturally, did not endear her to Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line, where they know all about both grits and beauty queen protocol.) Even President Jimmy Carter didn't do much more to raise the fortunes of his namesake dish -- remember "Grits and Fritz?" -- than he did the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

Yankees -- and here we'll include Marylanders, who seem to have seceded from Dixie in favor of homogenized "Mid-Atlantic States" status -- don't know what they're missing.

For the uninitiated, here are a few grits "basics." Grits are hominy that has been dried and coarsely ground. Hominy, which was an American Indian staple, is made by soaking corn kernels in a weak lye solution until they swell up and burst their hulls, then washing them well and boiling them. Some Southern historians name hominy as "the first American food" -- when Capt. John Smith and his settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607 they were met by Indians bearing steaming bowls of hominy.

(Whether "grits" is a singular or plural noun is still a matter of controversy, even among Southerners themselves. But we'll stick with the plural form anyway; after all, like potato chips, you can't eat just one.)

Down south, grits are a breakfast tradition, whether served in a bowl topped with milk and a knob of butter, or slathered with red-eye gravy, lavishly salted and peppered and served alongside country ham. But Grits Belt cooks have also taken their ugly-duckling dish and, Pygmalionlike, brought out its glamorous side. Dolled-up grits often turn up as star main dish items at hunt brunches and elegant buffet luncheons.

One of the food's gourmet advocates is Bill Neal, owner and executive chef at Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., and author of "The Good Old Grits Cookbook" (Workman, $7.95). According to Eating Well magazine, the chef "elevates grits to haute cuisine" with a signature dish called simply "shrimp and grits," a bed of cheese grits topped with shrimp sizzled with mushrooms and scallions in spicy oil.

Until the early 20th century, when Southerners began to travel more and become more cosmopolitan, grits were just a simple, filling staple food and a good source of carbohydrates, according to Linda Carman, director of consumer affairs at Martha White Foods Inc. The 90-year old Nashville company produces Jim Dandy Grits, as well as a variety of baking products and packaged mixes.

Grits' image as a party food began perking up about the same time as other down-home country products, from homemade preserves to patchwork quilts, began to be seen as desirable and even upscale, she comments.

"My mother grew up in Georgia, and her father smoked hams," she says. "When she could get a sugar-cured ham, she liked it better, because it was something she didn't have every day. Smoked ham was seen as nothing special -- it was just a way of preserving the meat."

Now, of course, real country smoked ham is much more of a rarity, and there are fewer women at home to make hot biscuits from scratch each day. So is it any wonder that these foods are now seen as "special" and worthy of company? Or that their old Southern breakfast-table companion, grits, should have been reborn in a variety of new party guises, from jalapeno grits casserole to Cheddar grits souffle?

Grits have been on Ms. Carman's mind -- as well as in her mouth -- lately; as the company's home economist, she is in charge of the test kitchen, where she has been trying out recipes submitted for this year's World Grits Festival recipe contest. The top prize money for this year's competition was upped from $100 to $1,000, putting it in the recipe big leagues and attracting more than 300 entries from all over the South, and a few Northern states as well. Over the past few weeks, she has been fixing promising recipes from the main dish, side dish and dessert categories, and sampling them with the panel of judges.

Creativity counts, Ms. Carman says, and she is annually amazed with the variety of uses people find for grits, some of them surprisingly sophisticated. Previous winners have included everything from peach cheesecake to an Italian-inspired grits gnocchi layered with Gruyere.

"Italian, Mexican and Southwestern foods and flavors tend to lend themselves to grits, because they use a lot of corn products in those areas," she explains. She has also noted that South Carolinians often pair grits with seafood, especially shrimp, which sounds very luxurious to Northerners, but isn't at all rare in areas where shellfish are cheap and plentiful.

Winners will be feted at the 1991 World Grits Festival in St. George, S.C., April 19-21. The festival, now in its sixth year, was the inspiration of John Walters, owner of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in St. George, which is about 45 miles northwest of Charleston.

"Seven-eight years ago a grits salesman came in, and mentioned to my store manager that more grits were eaten in this part of the country than anywhere else. From that came the idea to have a grits festival," Mr. Walters explains.

He took his idea to other local businessmen, who laughed at first, then offered support. More recently, corporate supporters including Martha White and Quaker Oats have gotten into the act; Quaker is behind one of the more unusual of the festival's contests, "Rolling in the Grits," during which contestants are weighed before and after wallowing in a big vat of cooked grits. The winner is the person who manages to get the largest amount of grits to adhere to his or her body.

More conventional activities at the festival, which Mr. Walters predicts will attract about 35,000 to 40,000 visitors this year, include a parade, live music, carnival rides and, more in line with the theme, a demonstration of a working grist mill (from which grits may take its name), and the crowning of a local beauty as "Miss Grits."

There will also be a grits-eating contest, which will measure the contestants' speed at eating the dish, not their capacity.

"We don't want to make anybody sick," Mr. Walters says with a laugh. "They'll hate grits for the rest of their life!"

Now that they have the backing of top chefs, creative cook-off competitors and the good folk of St. George, do your guests have any reason to be snooty about grits? Of course not.

But if they are, serve them one of these dishes, and call it "polenta." They'll love it.

Grits souffle

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

From "America the Beautiful Cookbook," by Phillip Stephen Schultz (Collins, 1990, $39.95).

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 green onions, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup water

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup hominy grits

4 eggs, separated

-- of Tabasco

1/4 cup cream

1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rub a 1-quart souffle dish with 1/2 tablespoon of the butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the Parmesan cheese. Set aside in a cool place.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small saute pan over low heat. Add the green onions and garlic; cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Combine the water, milk and salt in a saucepan. Heat to boiling, whisk in the grits and reduce the heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until thick, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Reduce the heat to low and beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Transfer to a large bowl and beat in the Tabasco, cream, Cheddar cheese, 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the grits. Transfer to the prepared souffle dish and sprinkle the top with the remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese. Bake until puffed and golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve immediately.

Crook's Corner shrimp and grits

Makes 4 servings.

As prepared by Bill Neal at Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C.

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup hominy grits

1 teaspoon butter

1/4 - 3/4 cup grated sharp Cheddar

hot pepper sauce

freshly grated nutmeg

white pepper

3 sliced bacon, diced

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, rinsed and patted dry

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1 cup finely sliced scallions

1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 teaspoons lemon juice

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, combine 4 1/2 cups water and salt; bring to a boil. Slowly sift grits through one hand into the water, stirring with a whisk in the other hand. When all grits have been added, continue stirring and reduce the heat to low, until only an occasional bubble breaks the surface. Continue cooking for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.

Beat in butter and cheese. Season to taste with hot pepper sauce, a little nutmeg and white pepper. Cover and hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.

Saute bacon lightly over medium-high heat in a skillet. The edges should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Remove bacon, discard fat and return bacon to the pan. When the pan is hot, add shrimp in an even layer. Turn shrimp as they begin to color, add mushrooms and saute about 2 to 4 minutes, until shrimp are pink and just firm. Stir in scallions and garlic. Season with lemon juice, parsley and hot pepper sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Divide grits among 4 plates. Spoon shrimp over them and serve.

Grillades and grits

Makes 4 servings.

As prepared by Austin Leslie of Chez Helene Restaurant in New Orleans (which, according to Ms. Carman of Martha White Foods, has the largest grits consumption of any major metropolitan area). Published in "The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook," by Sheila Ainbinder.

8 slices (4 ounces each) veal

salt and pepper, to taste

flour (for dusting)

butter, for sauteing

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup bacon drippings

1 cup onions, chopped

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup green pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

1 cup beef stock or water, hot

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

1/4 cup green onions, finely chopped

Salt and pepper veal slices, dust in flour and brown in butter. Set aside.

Combine 1/4 cup flour and bacon drippings over moderate heat and stir constantly until brown. Add onions, celery, pepper and garlic and saute gently for 5 minutes. Next, add all other ingredients, except parsley and green onions. Stir sauce and simmer 1/2 hour.

Return veal slices to sauce and simmer until tender. Add chopped parsley and green onions and serve over freshly cooked grits.

GritsCream

Makes 6 servings.

Could a dish this easy take top prize in a recipe contest? This dessert, by Lea Heil of Newberry, S.C., did; it won the $1,000 grand prize in Martha White's 1991 World Grits Festival Recipe Contest. Serve it with fresh fruits such as peach slices, strawberries or raspberries, stir in chopped nuts, raisins or currants, or sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg.

2 1/2 cups half and half

1/2 cup quick grits

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine half and half, grits, salt and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook until thickened, stirring constantly, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Serve warm.

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