In the South, where corn is king, grits are it. A gluten free grainy corn porridge they are served with breakfast, lunch, and supper. And they make an excellent accompaniment for barbecue. Especially cheese grits.
Some purists split hairs and define grits as being made only from white corn hominy, which is dried corn that has been soaked, sometimes with lye, and the fertile centers, the germs, and tough exterior hulls are removed before it is dried again and ground. Some say polenta is only made from yellow corn and it is not as finely ground. And there is a minor difference between corn breeds used in Italy and the US South, and new hybrids come online every year. In the real world, either white or yellow corn, hominy or untreated, can be used to make both polenta or grits, and when you buy a bag labeled grits or polenta, it could be either. The taste diff doesn't amount to more than a grain of corn and you can use them interchangeably.
In the old days most towns had a water or wind driven grist mill, and people brought their grain for grinding, often paying the miller with part of the finished product. Purists prefer stone ground, and never buy instant grits, which have been processed to speed cooking. Grits contain a small amount of oil so they should be used when fresh or stored in the refrigerator or else they can go rancid.
Bronson "Bron" Smith is a South Carolina Barbecue Association (SCBA) Master Judge and as gracious a Southern Gentleman as ever bred. When I first visited Columbia in an effort to taste my way across the state he grabbed his car keys, said "jump in", and squired me around for days showing me the nooks and crannies and the best eats. One morning we had an especially good batch of grits he told me how to make them "the right way" with a secret ingredient that is not on the package instructions or any cookbooks I have seen: Baking soda.
Bron like his grits best with eggs and country ham, but often tops them with cheese and serves them with barbecue.
Grits set up like concrete in a hurry, so do them at the last minute. If they get dry and thick, whisk in some milk and heat in the microwave.
Makes. 2 servings.
Takes. 5 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to cook
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup grits or polenta
2 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper to taste
About the grits. Instant grits just don't have the flavor. Use them only in an emergency. Quaker Quick Grits are not the same as instant and they will do in a pinch.
About the water. You can swap out some of the water for stock, milk, cream, or a combination. Try 1 cup water and 1 cup milk.
About the butter. You can substitute other flavorful fats if you wish. Bacon fat, lard, and extra virgin olive oil are good.
To make cheese grits. To make cheesy grits, add 2 ounces (by weight) of shredded cheddar cheese. You can try other cheeses, but not all will work. Beware of stringy cheeses like mozzarella. For a thrill try home made boursin.
To make shrimp grits. In South Carolina, shrimp grits are big. Leave out the cheese. Get 1/2 pound of shrimp and grill it or sauté it in a pan. Toss it on top with some finely diced peppers and or tomato. I use sweet red bell peppers, but it is fun with jalapeño.
Add herbs. You can flavor grits with 1 tablespoon of herbs such as thyme, chives, or green onions if you wish. I am especially fond of rosemary in my grits. If you are adding herbs, add them at the last minute, just before the cheese. Bron's favorite is chopped fresh spring onions.
Other toppings. Chopped bacon, ham, and sausage are great in grits. Some folks like to add brown gravy, sugar, molasses, maple syrup, and ketchup. Go ahead if you must, ut know you are in violation of the 10 Commandments of Grits.
1) Pour the liquid into a 2 quart saucepan with high sides and add the baking soda. I know this is a huge pan, but it can foam up with the baking soda so the high sides will keep it from foaming over and spattering. Be careful that you don't use more baking soda than the recipe calls for. Bring to a boil and keep an eye on it. The moment it boils, pour in the grits slowly so each grain gets "shocked" to prevent clumping. As soon as it comes to a boil again, turn the temp down to the lowest possible temp and stir down the foam. When it is no longer foaming, put on the lid. Let it sit for 20 minutes, stirring or whisking every 5 minutes or so to keep it from clumping or sticking to the bottom. A wooden spoon is best for this task so you can get down into the corners of the pan and prevent burning. It should get thick, but not gummy.
2) Add the butter and stir it in until it melts and is evenly distributed. If you are adding herbs, now's the time. If you are adding cheese, now's the time. Mix it in about 1/3 at a time. If it is too thick, and it probably will be, add an ounce of liquid and stir. Add more liquid if necessary. If it is too wet, leave the lid off for a few minutes. When it has thickened but is still a little runny, season it to taste with salt, pepper. Take it off on the runny side. It will thicken by the time you serve it.
3) Remove from heat and if you are using other toppings like shrimp, bacon, or ham, now's the time. Serve with butter, salt, pepper, and cream on the side in case your guests want to doctor it.
Polenta: Italian style grits
In Italy, they call grits polenta, and they make their cornmeal mush differently. Here's how I learned it.
2 cups water
1/2 cup polenta or grits
1 tablespoon butter (salted or unsalted)
1 tablespoon high quality extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or more to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
About the cheese. Please use real Parm from Italy. It is so much better than the American versions. You can substitute another hard grating cheese such as pecorino.
Optional. Add 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs about 1 minute before serving. If you use dried herbs, use only a teaspoon, and add them 15 minutes before serving. I like thyme, rosemary, or sage.
1) Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add the polenta slowly so each grain gets hit with hot water.
2) Immediately turn the heat down to medium and let it blurp and gurgle for about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to the lowest setting, add the butter and let it go for 1 hour, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom.
3) Add the olive oil, salt, and cheese, and stir them all in thoroughly. Serve, and if you wish, put fresh olive oil on the table for people to drizzle.