On a cold winter's morning a cup of steaming yellow grits, doctored with cheese, diced smoky bacon and a dab of butter melting in the center can be about as satisfying and soul-warming as any breakfast could be.
But this same humble ingredient, ground corn, can be gentrified. Grits, made with best quality cream, a good cheese like Gruyere or Taleggio, formed into a cake and seared in hot butter can be the base of an elegant meal. Herbsaint, the landmark New Orleans restaurant that is ranked by Gourmet Magazine in the top 50 in the United States, has had shrimp in a tasso cream sauce and grit cake on its menu for years.
Grits come to us from the Native Americans who introduced the European settlers to corn. The name itself is of Old English origins, grytt, meaning course meal. For much of its modern history grits have been served as a breakfast offering, with shrimp and grits and grits and grillades being the best examples. But modern chefs who are blending cultures and ignoring culinary rules have thrown the doors open to innovation. Grits are not just for breakfast anymore.
Think of grits as a base on which to build. They can be cooked and then poured into molds of any shape or design or poured onto a hotel pan and when solid cut into squares. If you're making a small appetizer ice cube trays are a perfect size for a grit-based cake.
Grits lovingly take on al
most any flavor they are paired with. A very simple recipe matches grits with garlic and butter. Cheese, bacon, smoked sausage, peppers, chopped collard greens, mushrooms, chopped shrimp or crawfish are just a few of the other ingredients that can make rather bland grits stand up and sing.
Complexity of flavor can be achieved by making grits with chicken stock, cream and butter instead of the traditional recipe using just water.
Note: the proportion of grits to liquid varies somewhat by the grind of the grits. Adjust the measure according to package directions.
This is a great spring time dish to make just as the first tomatoes reach the market.
SPRINGTIME SHRIMP AND GRITS
1 pound large shelled shrimp
2 cups of cooked grits, poured into molds
4-6 vine ripe tomatoes, quartered
1 chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped red or green bell pepper
4-6 cloves chopped garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes
Valentino hot sauce
Butter and olive oil as necessary
Marinate the shrimp in the hot sauce for at least 30 minutes. In a large sauté pan heat a tablespoon of butter or more until almost smoking. Cook the shrimp very quickly, about 30 seconds on a side and then remove to another dish. Add a little olive oil to the same pan, reduce the heat to medium and add the onions. Cook for 5-6 minutes then add the celery and bell peppers, cooking for an additional 5 minutes. Remember to season as you go. Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Simmer until the tomatoes start to break down. Taste the sauce and season as necessary. Just before serving add the shrimp and toss well. Remove the grits from the molds, plate, add the sauce and garnish with cilantro.
Optional: The grits can be fortified with almost any type of cheese, bacon, pork sausage, red pepper flakes and fresh herbs.
CREAMY GRITS CASSEROLE
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups regular grits
1/2 cup mascarpone
2 tablespoons of butter
1/3 cup chopped smoked sausage
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
4-6 cloves chopped garlic
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese (or other good melting cheese)
Panko bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sauté the sausage in oil until brown and crispy, remove and in the same pan cook the bell pepper until done. Add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes. Bring the stock to a boil, whisk in the grits, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until done, about 10 minutes. Combine all of the ingredients in a casserole pan, top with the panko, dot with butter and bake for 30 minutes.
AN ELEGANT AND SIMPLE BRUNCH
1 cups grits
4 cups cream
1/4 cup cubed Emmental or other good Swiss cheese
1 cup baby spinach leaves
6 slices of best quality smoky bacon
6 farm fresh eggs
1/2 cup diced onion
1 chopped and seeded poblano pepper
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
Green onions to garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the cream, whisk in the grits and cook until almost done. Season as you stir the grits. Add the cheese and the spinach leaves stirring until the cheese melts and the leaves have wilted. Remove and pour into molds (ice cube trays work well for this). In another pan cook the bacon until crispy, remove and set aside. Sauté the vegetables for 5-6 minutes in the bacon fat, remove and set aside. Cook the eggs sunny side up, using egg molds if you have them so that the eggs are a uniform size. Remove the grits from the molds and plate. Top with several slices of bacon and one egg. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of the sautéed vegetables on top and garnish with green onions.
Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste.
You can contact him at email@example.com.