On the tip of his finger, Matt Lee balances a corn kernel. Candlelight travels through the translucent grain, turning it into a Day-Glo specimen for Lee's discourse on the "anatomy of a grit."
The powdery stuff on the kernel's ridge that "looks like a French pedicure" is corn flour, he says. Then, sifting through a cup of coarse, stone-ground corn, Lee finds the "hard, glassy protein part" that comprises grits, along with bits of hull and black specks of stem-ends, where the kernel grew from the cob.
When Matt Lee and his brother Ted hold cooking demonstrations to promote their recent cookbook, they make their own grits with a hand grinder and give this same lesson. The Charleston, S.C., duo believe it's helpful to remind people of the culinary alchemy taken for granted when they tuck into a bowl of shrimp and creamy grits, slab bacon grits or grits served with shiitakes and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Sitting in the Hominy Grill, a Charleston restaurant devoted to low-country cuisine, the brothers eat and talk grits. They call the venerable foodstuff "a pillar of Southern cooking" in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which recently won the James Beard Foundation award for "cookbook of the year."
Among the book's recipes for grits, though, are several, including cheese-grits chiles rellenos with roasted tomato gravy and chocolate grits ice cream, that proclaim the ingredient's ever-expanding role in creative cuisine rooted in a wealth of traditions.
Through hoppinjohns.com, John Martin Taylor, author of several Southern cookbooks, sells 20,000 pounds of milled grits annually, much of that to "restaurants that have absolutely nothing to do with the South," he says. That includes Jimmy's No. 43, a Manhattan pub where a ladle of thick grits may be substituted for mashed potatoes on the shepherd's pie.
At a time when corn is blighted by its notoriety as a source of corn syrup, found in many junk foods, grits devotees such as the Lees, Taylor and others stand up for the ancient crop's abiding integrity. When grits are stone-ground and quickly served, "the corn flavor is amazing," Matt Lee says. On the table before him are sauteed shrimp with mushrooms, scallions and bacon served over cheese grits, fried grits in a cheddar-and-parmesan dredge and a straight-up bowl of creamy grits, all prepared with fresh grits from the Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge, N.C.
The water-powered 18th- century gristmill is a rare example of an operating artifact from a time when mills for grinding corn were as essential to a community as a supermarket is today. Back then, fresh, quality grits from corn crossbred for taste and texture were as prized as they are now in sophisticated kitchens, says Glenn Roberts, the owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.
For that reason, grits made from heirloom corn served in restaurants such as Baltimore's Charleston have much in common with the cracked maize that has sustained generations of Southerners, he says.
"To me, artisan means 'by hand,' " says Roberts, who says he has trespassed across thousands of acres (often on bootleggers' property) to find and revive nearly extinct heirloom corn varieties, such as Carolina Gourdseed White. "We do this ourselves. We mill for three days, we [work in the fields] three days," Roberts says. "If we can't do it, it's not artisanal anymore. The definition of artisan is exactly the way everybody used to eat."
Cindy Wolf, Roberts' former protege and the chef and co-owner of Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, swears by the satisfying mouth feel and earthy flavor delivered by Anson Mills grits. "It's a great foil for savory food, just like potatoes or pasta or rice," says Wolf, who apprenticed in one of Roberts' restaurants in Charleston, S.C.. "It's a pretty delicate flavor, a little bit sweet."
Grits cakes are standard fare at Wolf's restaurant. "We mix in a little Reggiano with creamy grits and just a little bit of Japanese bread crumbs and form it into cakes and fry," Wolf says. The cakes "emerge with a wonderful crispiness and are almost creamy and cheesy on the inside."
As a chef at Georgia Brown's in Washington and at her previous Baltimore restaurant, Savannah, Wolf also educated her customers about the glories of grits, providing a sample upon request. They were often skeptical because "the grits a lot of people are exposed to are something out of the grocery store," she says. The lessons have paid off. "I get very few requests for a taste anymore," Wolf says.
"It's grits that carries us through work and play in the South," co-authors David Perry and the late Bill Neal write in Good Old Grits Cookbook. "And it's the grits that have been on our plates for generations - all the way back to the Indians - that say this is America's first food."
As essential as grits have been to American foodways, it has taken high-profile chefs such as Wolf, Neal and Hominy Grill owner Robert Stehling to elevate the ground cornmeal from food cliche to "low-haute" status.
During the 1980s, Neal, who ran two restaurants in Chapel Hill, N.C., was one of the first chefs to showcase regional Southern delicacies. Neal has been credited with raising the profile of the low-country fisherman's breakfast of shrimp and grits to iconic status. The meal is now a mainstay in a profusion of restaurants, including the Hominy Grill. And grits now are sold by the folksy sack in gourmet food shops across the country.
In different measures flinty, sweet and earthy, depending on the corn variety, grits pair well with any number of ingredients, Stehling says. Although more outlandish pairings, such as "foie gras-stuffed hush puppies, I end up passing on," he says.
"The weirdest, strangest thing we ever did was veggie burgers made with mirepoix and a bunch of mushrooms and cold grits as a binder," Stehling says. "Again, that was getting a little too far off my mandate." Although, he adds, "The lunch crowd was loving it."
Despite the invaluable role played by grits in the American food chain, they have suffered over the centuries from an identity crisis. In Charleston, grits are called hominy, but elsewhere, hominy is the name given to dried corn processed with an alkali such as lye to remove the skins. "Throughout the 19th century, American cooks north and south labored valiantly, and hopelessly, to squeeze the rich nomenclature of native corn dishes into the narrow confines of hominy, sampe and - worst of all - grits," Betty Fussell writes in The Story of Corn.
No matter what they're called, grits are best experienced freshly ground, when they still retain the flavorful oil found within the corn germ. On the other hand, mass-produced grits degerminated to ensure a long shelf life have been likened to library paste by grits authorities and neophytes alike.
Fresh grits, though, are highly perishable. "As soon as you grind it, the kernel which protects the germ is crushed and the oils are exposed to the air and the grits go rancid," Taylor says. Stone-ground grits must be shipped promptly after milling and quickly consumed or stored in the freezer.
Grits also lead to the question: Yellow or white? On the Anson Mills Web site, Roberts borrows from a wine expert's lexicon to describe his preferences: White corns "possess heightened flavors of the earth, and carry pronounced mineral and floral nuances." Yellow corns "fall to robust corn flavor in the front palate; the best of them show fine citrus flavor in the back."
A purist, as well as a self-taught scientist, farmer and savior of bygone flavors, Roberts also recommends cooking grits with the "mildly alkaline water of Sea Island aquifers."
Stone-Ground Grits With Local Asparagus and Wild Morels
Serves 4 to 6
4 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup stone-ground grits
2 bunches asparagus
1 tablespoon melted butter
20 fresh morels or another fresh mushroom such as shiitake, button or portobello
2 tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
Bring milk, butter and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Whisk in grits and continue to whisk for first 10 minutes, stirring frequently on low heat. Then switch to wooden spoon and stir for the next 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash asparagus, cut off and discard woody ends and cut the rest into small pieces. Blanch in boiling, salted water. Drain; toss in melted butter and salt to taste.
Wash morels well in 3 separate batches of water and drain. Toss with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Roast at 350 degrees for 12 minutes, or until golden brown. To plate, spoon grits into center and garnish with asparagus and morels.
Courtesy of Cindy Wolf, chef/co-owner of Charleston Restaurant
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 299 calories, 13 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 37 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 413 milligrams sodium
Makes 3 cups; serves 4
2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
1 cup stone-ground grits
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Pour the milk and water into a 2-quart saucepan, cover and turn the heat to medium-high. When the milk mixture boils (about 5 minutes), uncover the pot, add the grits and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and reduce the heat to medium.
Stir constantly until the grits are the consistency of thick soup and release a fragrant sweet-corn perfume, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes, for about 20 minutes, until the grits thicken and fall lazily from the end of the spoon. Cook about 15 minutes more, stirring constantly to prevent the grits from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
When the grits are creamy and fluffy and soft, turn off the heat, add the pepper and butter and stir to incorporate. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if desired, and serve immediately.
Per serving ( 3/4 cup): 250 calories, 8 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 39 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 414 milligrams sodium
Slab Bacon and Cheddar Cheese Broiled Grits
1 recipe Simple Grits, minus the 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (see recipe)
1/4 pound slab bacon or 4 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
1 3/4 cups coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (about 1/4 pound; divided use)
While the grits are cooking, scatter the diced bacon in a dry skillet. Cook over medium-high heat, moving the pieces around with a wooden spoon, until the bacon is firm and barely crisp, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Reserve the bacon fat.
When the grits are cooked, stir in 1 1/4 cups of the cheese, the diced bacon and the bacon fat. Stir until cheese melts. Transfer the grits to a small baking dish or cast-iron skillet or divide among four 6-ounce ramekins. Scatter the remaining cheese over the surface.
Broil the grits (in the baking dish or skillet) about 2 inches beneath the flame or heating element until the cheese is nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately, with scrambled eggs.
From "The Lee Bros. Southern Cook- book," by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Per serving: 397 calories, 17 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 39 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 812 milligrams sodium