Kiss My Grits!

What is a grit? Depending on where you grew up, a grit — or grits — can mean very different things. For some (as a kid, my brother was one who thought such) a grit is synonymous with redneck, hick, hillbilly or Hoosier (although the entire state of Indiana takes this name with pride). Grit is actually derived from the old English word grytt, meaning a course ground meal usually referring to porridge.

Know The Grit
Grits that you eat are typically found in the breakfast aisle by the oatmeal or in the health food section by the other grains. They usually come as corn grits (yellow grits) or hominy grits (white grits). While technically a “grit,” corn grits contain the hull, making it yellow and almost identical to polenta. Grits are usually, but not always, a coarser grind than polenta.

True hominy grits are made from ground hominy. The corn kernels have been soaked in a lime solution, originally done by the Native Americans using a weak lye solution derived from hardwood ash. The process doubles the size of the kernel, bursting off the hull and germ, leaving the smooth white interior of the grain; this changes the texture, and with the removal of the germ, the grain becomes unable to sprout, making it suitable for long-term storage. The hominy kernel can be kept dry or ground into hominy (or white) grits.

Cook The Grit
As with most things today, the traditional ways are hard to find. You won’t find any grits soaked in lye and you will have to work a little to find grits that aren’t instant or quick-cooking. I don’t find too much quality loss in the quick-cooking type; they take about a 4 to 1 ratio of liquid to grits. Even though the instructions typically say to cook for five minutes, I’m usually more satisfied with the texture and doneness after about 10 minutes. Always judge the finished product by taste.

To cook grits, start with putting liquid in the pan; the recipe below calls for half water and half milk, although you could use 100 percent of one or the other. Bring the liquid to a simmer with a small amount of salt. Keep a close watch to make sure that the liquid doesn’t boil over. Slowly whisk the dry quick grits into the simmering liquid and stir occasionally for 8 to 10 minutes. If the mixture becomes too thick or is too crunchy, don’t be afraid to add small amounts of liquid. The grits are cooked once the grains have lost most of their resistance against your teeth. Whisk in butter and cheese, if desired, and season to taste. Grits remain fairly runny while hot; as soon as they start to cool, they will begin to solidify as the starches congeal.

Eat The Grit
Shrimp and grits are wonderful, but you can find a recipe for that Southern favorite just about anywhere. Grits offer a palette of culinary creativity, so don’t feel tied down. Try new things while you explore what you have on hand in your refrigerator. The topping recipe below is vegetarian; if you need a little more bulk in your topping, start by rendering some bacon lardons and used the rendered bacon fat to cook the vegetables. If you want to turn it vegan, remove the milk and cheese from the grits and replace with a milk substitute (soy, almond or coconut) and cheese substitute, if desired, and replace the butter in the topping with vegetable or olive oil.

The topping is only half the battle, and is optional at that. Adding other flavoring or ingredients to the grits can take it to the next level — jalapenos, aged cheese, blanched garlic cloves, tomatoes (add tomatoes at the very end so grits don’t turn red), rendered bacon, cooked ham or just about anything else you can imagine.

4 to 6 servings
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 cup quick-cooking grits
3 ounces butter, sliced
3 ounces cheese (optional)
Salt and pepper as needed

Mushroom Topping
4 ounces butter (8 tablespoons, or 1 stick)
1 bell pepper, diced
1 onion, diced
½ pound to ¾ pound oyster or shiitake mushrooms, sliced
Salt and pepper as needed
Sliced green onion to garnish, if desired

Heat butter in pan until melted; if desired, allow edges to brown slightly for deeper flavor. Sauté onions and peppers over medium heat, cooking until the onions become fragrant and translucent. Add sliced mushrooms and cook for 6 to 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently until mushrooms have softened and shrunk considerably. Season mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over grits.