Gulf Coast Cooking

Grits: Putting a twist on a traditional Southern dish

Grits or polenta with a red sauce is a classic Italian idea. Photos by JULIAN BRUNT/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALD
Grits or polenta with a red sauce is a classic Italian idea. Photos by JULIAN BRUNT/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALD

What's the difference between yellow grits and polenta?

The best answer is "the price." Both are nothing but ground corn, although an Italian chef friend insists that the polenta made in Italy is a different grind.

Sorry, but it doesn't take much investigation to discover that polenta in Italy comes in at least three different grinds. So what's the beef?

Perhaps the bad rep that grits get is from people who have only had white grits, the kind served plain, at a small-town diner, with nothing but a tab of cheap butter.

Yep, those grits sure don't deserve any special accolades, but if you are fortunate enough to find a source for freshly ground yellow grits, and take the time to put some love into the recipe, grits might soon be on the top of your must-have food list.

The Italians love to pair polenta with gorgonzola, butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and sausage, but they also like to bake it and top it with Bolognese sauce.

Another Italian take is to serve polenta with braised spareribs. Does that sound good or what? Still another popular recipe is to

make a shortcake with grits and mix in raisins, dried figs and pine nuts.

On the other hand, turn to the classic Creole cookbook, "The Picayune Creole Cookbook," and they suggest boiled or baked grits.

Even Edna Lewis, in her book, "The Gift of Southern Cooking," falls short with only an "old-fashioned" recipe and one more, a bit more interesting, suggesting grits be served with guava syrup. Even the French, in the mighty "Larousse Gastronomique," suggest only polenta and Parmigiano-Reggiano or with roasted song birds. It seems no one but the Italians get the versatility of ground corn.

To make the point about grits and polenta being similar, use either for the following recipes. You will find the size of the grind will affect the texture, but here's another hint. If you think the grind is too coarse, put it in the food processor and give it a whirl for a minute or so. There you go. Just as fine as you like it.

GRITS AND RED SAUCE

1 cup grits

2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 cans best-quality whole tomatoes

2-3 cups good quality red wine

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1 chopped red onion

4-5 cloves chopped garlic

Red pepper flakes

Small bunch fresh basil

Combine the stock and cream and bring to a simmer, whisk in the grits and continue simmering until tender, about 20 minutes. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, stir to incorporate and then pour into buttered molds, such as small, round ramekins'. Set aside.

Sauté the onion in olive oil for 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook 2 minutes longer. Add the wine and reduce by half, add the tomatoes, season aggressively and simmer for 1 hour. Separate from the sauce, combine, season, and cook the beef and pork until well done. Add to the sauce and simmer 30 minutes more. Deglaze the pan with a little more wine and add to the sauce. Unmold the grit cakes, plate, top with sauce and as much Parmigiano-Reggiano as you like. Serve at once.

SHRIMP AND GRITS

This is a recipe that can be presented in a small handful of ways. Some cooks make it with almost no sauce, some like the shrimp to be swimming in sauce, almost soup like, but something in-between just might be best. When cooking seafood, do not overcook the shrimp.

1 pound large, shell-off, wild-caught shrimp

2/3 cup chopped onion

1 medium chopped bell pepper

3-4 chopped cloves of garlic

1 cup dry white wine

Red pepper flakes, salt

1 cup freshly ground grits (see your farmers market)

2 cups best chicken stock

1 stick cold butter

2/4 cup grated white cheddar cheese

Sauté the shrimp very quickly in hot oil, just 30 seconds on a side, remove and set aside. Add the onions and bell pepper, season aggressively, and cook for 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Now add the wine and reduce by 2/3. Add half of the butter, whisk to thicken, add the shrimp and turn the heat off.

Heat the stock to a simmer and then slowly whisk in the grits. Simmer slowly for 15 minutes, add the rest of the butter and the cheese, continue simmering until the grits are done, about 5 minutes. Pour into small, round ramekins, and set aside until firm. Remove the grits from the mold, plate, and top with the shrimp. Serve at once.

GRIT TUREEN-GRITS FOR A WINTER'S MORNING

This is a versatile recipe that will do nicely for an elegant dinner with friends, or as a hearty breakfast on a cold winter's morning. The layers make for an attractive presentation, so don't just scoop it out and plop it on the plate.

1 cup freshly ground grits

2 cups best chicken stock

1 stick cold butter

1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1-2 red bell peppers

1 cup chopped smoked sausage

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 oblong tureen or similar dish

Heat the stock to a simmer, then whisk in the grits, and continue simmering until done. Add about half the butter and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, stir and taste. Add additional butter as you see fit. Chop the peppers and sauté in a moderately hot pan until done, remove and set aside. Add the sausage and cook until browned. Butter or oil the inside of the baking dish, pour in a layer of grits, add the sausage, and then another layer of grits, now add the peppers and a final layer of grits. Top with the cheddar and bake in a quick oven (375-400 f) until hot and bubbly. Remove and allow to cool. Invert the dish and remove the tureen, now carefully slice so the layers can be appreciated.

Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.

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