From the Ground Up: Grits Go Mainstream
Special to the Winters Express
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
Grits, which are small broken grains of corn, have long been associated with southern cooking, and some of us northerners, like me, have never eaten any until recently. Ann, however, has been eating grits most of her life. She spent her childhood summers in North Carolina when grits were one of the South’s best secrets.
Ann told me that grits with butter, salt and pepper, made by Daisy the cook, was a regular feature at breakfast at her stepmother and father’s home in Durham. Every time she comes back from a Chapel Hill visit to family and friends, she reports that she “fed her soul with a bowl of piping hot grits for breakfast at the Sienna Hotel breakfast buffet.”
Now, as southern cooking goes mainstream in the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems like every time I pick up a menu, I find grits on it, and as often as not, collards as well. I’m delighted, because I finally started cooking grits this year when a sophisticated friend in Kentucky, appalled by my lack of knowledge about one of his top 10 foods in the world, sent me several pounds of stone-ground white corn grits from Weisenberger Mills in Hardin County, Kentucky, along with his favorite recipes.
Since then, I have become a devotee of grits. The recipe I like the best thus far is the simplest – boil the grits in salted water for about 35 minutes. Serve. I serve them to accompany all kinds of meats and vegetables, such as roasted pork loin, braised beef short ribs, or sautéed mushrooms. Think of serving them in place of potatoes, rice or polenta and you’ll be on the right track.
At Pican’s in Oakland’s uptown district, for example, you’ll find such items as Braised Beef Short ribs with Pimento Grits, Oven-roasted Brussels Sprouts, and Truffled Crème Fraiche, and Shrimp and Grits with Arugula and multiple other dishes that speak of the south, but with the Bay Area dedication to fresh, seasonal ingredients. Well, OK. The grits are from Falls Mills in Tennessee.
Ann recently ate a delicious main course of grits for dinner at Wexler’s in San Francisco. The dish featured Ridgecut Mills Grits with Mimolette cheese, Delicata Squash and Red Wine Jus. And closer to home, Chef Michael Touhy is serving grits for lunch with Spicy Fennel Sausage and greens at his downtown Sacramento restaurant, The Grange.
Grits were first produced by Native Americans centuries ago. They made both “corn” grits and “hominy” grits. Hominy is field corn that has been soaked in lye water for several days until the outer skin of the kernel sloughs off. Then the hominy is dried and can be milled. In the south, the delicate, finely ground white grits are preferred. Yellow grits, according to Marion Brown’s Southern Cookbook, while tasty, is not considered so elegant, for it is ground from the husk of the grain. However, as with any traditional food there are lots of opinions.
In the south, nearly everyone had a patch of corn, a grain that stores well over the winter. And grist mills were common. John Martin Taylor, known as Hoppin’ John and author of recipe books from South Carolina’s “low country,” writes that naturally raised whole grain stone or water ground corn grits have provided major sustenance for the southeast throughout its history. Whereas some cultures eat potatoes and pasta, southerners ate grits and rice. Grits are still grown by small farmers in Georgia and Kentucky. Using my friend’s gift of Weisenberger Stone Ground White Grits, Ann and I developed this vegetarian main dish recently using collard greens from my winter garden, and wild mushrooms from the Davis Farmers Market.
Grits with Greens and Wild Mushrooms (Serves four as a main dish)
This dish can be made with any winter greens such as turnip, kale, mustard, chard, beet tops or other winter dark leafy greens, with white or yellow grits.
Four cups water
One cup grits (not instant)
Eight tablespoons butter
One bunch collards, stems removed and chiffonade
Four cups mixed wild mushrooms
Putting it together
Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the grits slowly and stir to prevent clumping. Turn heat to low. Leave uncovered and stir from time to time. Cook for 20-25 minutes, or until done. Add salt and pepper to taste. In another pan, such as a sauté pan, heat four tablespoons butter and add the prepared greens. Stir quickly, add a few tablespoons of water, and cover pan with a tight fitting lid. Turn heat to simmer and cook for 15 minutes. While these dishes are cooking, chop the mushrooms coarsely. Melt the remaining four tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan. Add the mushrooms and stir. Turn heat to low and continue to cook for about five minutes. To serve, place the grits in individual soup plates, spoon a large serving of the mushrooms on top of the grits in the center as a bed for the greens which get piled on top of the mushrooms.
Grits on the menu
~ 1300 on Fillmore, 1300 Fillmore St., San Francisco; (415) 771-7100 or 1300fillmore.com.
~ Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Pkwy., Oakland; (510) 839-7685 or brownsugarkitchen.com.
~ Farmer Brown, 25 Mason St., San Francisco; (415) 409-3275 or farmerbrownsf.com.
~ Pican, 2295 Broadway, Oakland; (510) 834-1000 or picanrestaurant.com.
~ Wexler’s, 568 Sacramento St. San Francisco; (415) 983-0102 or wexlerssf.com
(Ann Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and marketing consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. They co-lead Slow Food Yolo. Reach Georgeanne at email@example.com and Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org.)