The sweet smell of simmering grits wafts through the kitchen. As they cook, the grits gently bubble, pop and thicken into a golden, luscious porridge. They are made even more heavenly with cream, cheese and roasted green chilies.
My grits in no way resemble the first bowl of grits I ate just out of college. Yes, I was thankful my honey (now husband) made breakfast, but instant grits are a far contrast from ones that are slow cooked. True grits made from course ground corn, as opposed to instant grits, have more bran and germ and take a tad longer to cook, but their nuttier flavor and texture is unmatched.
So, like many dishes, grits have jumped from his repertoire to mine. The two recipes for grits that follow reflect our household — with a bit of soul food and Mexican influence. In case you did not know it, corn is indigenous to Mexico and eventually became a favorite crop throughout the Americas and beyond. It was especially popular among early Southern pioneers, who cultivated more corn than cotton.
A note before you get started with these recipes: Finding stoneground white grits in Humboldt might be tough. If you plan ahead, you can order some artisanal stoneground online. I'm not that organized so I get my grits from the natural food store in the bulk section (it's usually the Bob's Red Mill brand) marked as grits or polenta. Yes, you read that right: polenta.
If you're scratching your head, it's completely understandable. The labeling is inconsistent. For intellectual purposes, know that one of the primary differences between the two is that grits are usually made from white corn, while polenta is made from yellow corn. They come from different corn varieties; the latter version is a tad nuttier. Some authorities also distinguish the two by the size of the grind, grits being smaller. However, both grits and polenta are available in fine, medium and coarse grinds.
Since I'm not a purist and find the difference between the two insignificant, I opt instead for what's more readily available. When they are gussied up with spicy green chili and cheese or made killer as shrimp and bacon grits, you'll likely be back for seconds whether the grits are white or yellow.
Green Chili Cheese Grits
1 cup dry grits
3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pinch nutmeg
1 cup roasted green chilies, chopped (equals 2 whole roasted peppers)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 to 1 ½ cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
In a small pot, bring the water to a boil. Add salt and very slowly whisk in grits to separate the granules and prevent lumping. Reduce heat to simmer and stir frequently with a wooden spoon or spatula, scraping the sides of the pot. Cook covered 30 to 40 minutes until the grits are thick and creamy and there are no crunchy bits. Turn off the heat and add the butter, spices, chili and cream. Stir and fold in the cheese and fresh cilantro. Serve hot or room temperature.
Shrimp and Bacon Grits
I adapted this recipe from Bill Neal's shrimp and grits years ago. I use Louisiana-style hot sauce. Make sure to add the lemon juice a little at the time to your liking. Serves 4.
1 recipe Green Chili Cheese Grits
3 slices bacon, diced medium
Vegetable or canola oil, if needed
4 cups fresh white mushrooms, sliced
1 pound fresh shrimp, deveined and peeled
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 to 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons hot sauce
2 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Have green chili cheese grits near ready. Keep warm when done. Prepare shrimp for cooking, then pat dry with paper towels and set aside. Sauté diced bacon in a large skillet on medium-high heat until the edges are barely browned (do not cook until crispy). Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels. Set aside. Leave a thin layer of bacon grease in the bottom of the skillet, if it's not enough, add some oil. Over medium-high heat, sauté the mushrooms for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Lightly salt them and add the shrimp, stirring frequently. When the shrimp are about half cooked, add the garlic and cooked bacon. Sauté until the shrimp are pink and firm (do not overcook or they will become rubbery). Add 2 teaspoons lemon juice, hot sauce, green onions, parsley, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings and lemon juice. Serve over hot grits.
Andrea Juarez has additional recipes on her food anthropology blog www.ForkFingersChopsticks.com.