Something about a crisis makes me crave breakfast foods. Readers may have noticed that several of my Kitchen Basics lessons since the COVID-19 pandemic began have been for breakfast foods, including omelets and pancakes.
Today’s lesson is grits, also a breakfast food, but also a food that can be used in so many ways, making it suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner — or even dessert.
I came to grits late in life but I’m a huge fan. I particularly love any fresh, local stone-ground grits for their superior “gritty” texture and flavor.
In the Triad, that includes Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge. That has become harder to find during the pandemic, but can be ordered online at oldmillofguilford.com. Other N.C. brands include Boonville Mill in Boonville (www.boonvillemill.com) and Bost Grist Mill in Concord (www.bostgristmill.com). Other respected brands, both from South Carolina, include Anson Mills (ansonmills.com) and Geechie Boy (geechieboymill.com) — the latter is carried locally at Buie’s Market.
Supermarkets are typically not bastions of the best local stone-ground grits, but these days most carry at least one brand of stone-ground grits.
Supermarkets also will have regular (enriched, not whole or stone-ground) grits, quick-cooking grits and instant grits. For me, all of those choices provide texture and flavor that’s inferior to something like the stone-ground grits from the Old Mill of Guilford. But you might like those just fine. N.C. Chef Vivian Howard comments in an episode of her new series “Somewhere South” that she grew up eating instant grits with sausage and American cheese, and she proceeds to make some for her children on the show.
So to each his or her own. But if you don’t have really fresh and tasty stone-ground grits, take a tip from Howard and me: Doctor them.
The easiest way to do that is by melting grated cheese throughout the pot of grits. Butter and hot sauce do wonders, too. But if you really want to mask the flavor (or lack of flavor) of inferior grits, add pork — either bacon or sausage.
Note that different kinds of grits cook differently. As a general rule, stone-ground grits require longer cooking. But all grits do best when not rushed. I used to joke that whatever the instructions on the package of grits said, add 10 minutes and a cup or two more liquid. It’s maybe an exaggeration — but a slight one that has generally served me well over the years.
No matter what kind of grits I have, I’ll choose a liquid-to-grits ratio of at least 4-to-1. If I have stone-ground, coarse grits, I’ll make it 5-to-1.
If I should happen to be stuck with quick grits, I still would cook them for at least 15 minutes. Regular stone-ground grits generally need 20 to 30 minutes to get soft, thick and creamy. The best grits I ever had were cooked for 2 hours in a double boiler — that’s more involved than necessary perhaps, but it did go to show how grits love low and slow cooking (just like another Southern favorite, barbecue).
Grits also love butter and salt. I don’t recommend trying to make grits without them. And I recommend adding butter during the cooking process, not at the end — the butter helps reduce any sticking of grits to the pan, and grits are pretty sticky stuff.
Grits also love dairy. Try making one batch in water and one batch in milk and I doubt you’ll go back to water.
Actually, my go-to recipe these days calls for half water and half milk. You also can add savory flavor to grits by cooking them in chicken or other stock.
Most recipes say to reduce the heat once the grits have come to an initial boil. Many fail to say how much to reduce the heat. I’ve found that the heat has to be almost constantly monitored and reduced as the grits become thicker, to avoid sticking and to give the grits a chance to absorb liquid and soften. Think of it as a sliding scale: Start at high to bring liquid to a boil, and gradually work your way down to the lowest of the lows when the grits get thick.
Good grits should not only be soft and creamy but also have a consistency that’s a tiny bit soupy, yet thick enough so that they don’t run all over the plate.
Once you’ve mastered grits, you might want to start playing around with them. These days, shrimp and grits are probably the No. 1 way to use grits beyond the breakfast plate.
My recipe for shrimp and grits is fairly basic. I don’t use cheese grits. I don’t use cream in the grits. I often don’t even add bacon. I like to taste the shrimp and the grits — which means I avoid any strong flavors that could overpower them. So I stick with a simple combination of sautéed mushrooms, red bell pepper, garlic and scallions with shrimp and buttered grits.
But my recipe allows for variations. If you really have to have cheese in your shrimp and grits, I recommend fresh goat cheese (my first choice), feta or Parmesan. Other additions besides bacon or ham include fresh tomatoes and herbs.
You can have lots of other fun with grits. Top with fresh fruit and honey or maple syrup. Or add crumbled bacon and cheddar. Or sautéed butternut squash and toasted pecans. Or sautéed spinach, onions and feta. Let your imagination run wild. Kimchi? Why not?
You can chill leftover grits and cut the cold grits for frying into cakes. Grits cakes are especially good made with cheese grits.
The cakes are great with poached or fried eggs on top. Think of eggs Benedict with grits cakes subbing for English muffins.
Grits cakes also make a nice starchy side dish for dinner. They pair especially well with seafood.
Or use grits as a base in casseroles, as in Tex-Mex sausage casserole, a recipe that won John Reece of Pfafftown a ribbon at the Dixie Classic Fair a few years ago.
Grits also can be used for dessert. In that same fair contest, John Reece’s wife, Dinah, beat him with a recipe for grits lemon bars — and boy were they good.