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Grits are no longer just a Southern comfort food

With a mother who was born in Georgia and raised in Tennessee, I grew up on grits, always assuming that everyone knew what they were. Along with many assumptions we lose as we grow up, that one disappeared one Sunday in the spring of 1974 when I was 22. My (now former) husband was in his first year at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport where we lived in a tiny garage apartment across the street from the school.

We were one of the few married couples in his class, which was mostly young men far from home. Perpetually starving young men, as I soon learned, who shared dorm rooms and ate the dreadful cafeteria food almost exclusively. I was in the beginning phase of what would become a lifelong love of cooking, and who better as test cases than these guys who began "dropping by" around dinnertime, grateful for even the most miserable or bizarre experiments from my stove? (Eggplant-hot dog casserole: Enough said.)

In those first months, some became our friends, and I decided near the end of the first year to have a big Sunday brunch for all of them. (Brunch was a lot cheaper than dinner and we were pretty poor.)

That morning, our living room resembled a peaceful student sit-in. We could accommodate exactly three people properly, so the floor became a carpet of about 30 scrunched-up male bodies sitting shoulder to shoulder.

But it was a cheerful group. Someone had brought a big bottle of horrible vodka that got poured into tomato or orange juice. I made pans of cinnamon rolls and several vats of scrambled eggs. And, because it was always an expected component in any complete breakfast, I made grits in the huge red electric wok that had been the wedding gift du jour the year before.

The eggs, rolls and vodka were merrily consumed. But as most of our guests approached the grits, they assumed an expression of curious confusion.

Their faces said: ???

"You know, grits," I said. "They're just in a wok," thinking the wok was throwing them off.

Too polite and self-interested to still the hand that was feeding them, they accepted their scoops of grits and regained their square foot of space on the floor. They became quieter.

"What are grits?" one finally asked.

Now it was my turn to ???

I had never had to explain grits before. They were just . . . grits.

"You don't know what grits are?" I said.

Most shook their heads. Well of course not, I realized. Most of them were from up North, poor things. I explained they were a form of ground corn — not like the cornmeal you put in corn bread (more blank looks) — that you cooked into a transcendent Southern porridge.

So I served a lot of grits during our three years in that apartment. I served a lot of other things, too, and became a better cook along the way.

The guys seemed to like everything, but it was always the grits most of them loved best; maybe it was just sentimentality as grits were the first truly Southern food they had ever eaten. Three years later at graduation, one of our friends who was returning to New York to family and a job gave me a big hug and said, "I'll miss you. But I'll miss your grits more."

Today, my old friend probably couldn't avoid grits in New York. They're the "new" polenta (remember that craze?), favored by chefs there and everywhere else as a trendy comfort food. No wonder: They can stand alone in a bowl with nothing more than a hunk of butter or accommodate all manner of special treatments, accepting and gracious like, my mother would say, any good Southerner. Or, as I now believe, like any good person anywhere since grits have become part of a conversation that doesn't always come with a drawl.

Stone-ground grits get fancy treatment

I like the standard box of quick-cooking grocery store grits as much as anyone, but these days I tend to use stone-ground grits. They have attitude, at once creamier, nuttier and more flavorful. They take much more time, burbling at a bare simmer for 30 to 40 minutes and in need of a lot of stirring.

Stone-ground grits are available locally, but to get the Rolls-Royce product, order them from Anson Mills (see box), usually the source for those fancy dishes you read about in restaurant reviews.

The recipe here is one of those glamor-grits treatments, a tweaked version from one of my favorite New Orleans restaurants, Bayona, and its superstar chef, Susan Spicer. Shrimp and grits is a classic Southern dish with as many interpretations as there are shrimp and grits cooks.

In this one, the grits are prepared as a thick form of cheese grits that are cut into cakes and sauteed. I roast the shrimp in the oven on a foil-lined baking sheet, mainly to avoid using one more skillet to saute them. And with a bechamel base, this is saucier than some.

You might be unfamiliar with tasso. An ingredient in Cajun cuisine, it looks and tastes like ham but it's a smoked pork butt, highly seasoned and intensely flavored, so it's commonly used as an aromatic addition rather than a standalone. I have never found it locally so I order it from D'Artagnan. (I wrote about the company and its products in an earlier Mail-Order Mission story. See box.) A good smoked ham or bits of sauteed, thick-cut bacon or pancetta would be fine substitutions.

The recipe has three steps, but the grits, the biggest time-taker, have to be done in advance if you want them as cakes. You can eat them as they are without the chill and cake parts; they won't look as chef-y but either way will be delicious.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. fast facts

Shopping information

Grits: Anson Mills (ansonmills.com or (803) 467-4122) and its owner, Glenn Roberts, rescued antebellum corn and wheat strains from near-extinction in the 1990s and now have a thriving commercial and retail business in Columbia, S.C. The grits, like all Anson Mills products, are carefully selected to provide an authentic flavor. They're milled to order in small batches between stone grinders, giving them a coarser texture. There's a minimum order of four 12-ounce bags, but Anson Mills sells a lot more than grits. I keep in my freezer its cornmeal, several kinds of flour and Carolina rice. It's all pricey — starting at $5.95 — but worth it.

Tasso: D'Artagnan in New Jersey (dartagnan.com or toll-free 1-800-327-8246) is another chef favorite for meats, especially duck and rare game, along with duck fat, confitted duck legs and smoked duck breasts. It's a good source for tasso. A chunk weighing a little more than 1 pound is $10.99. It goes a long way and can be stored in the freezer.

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Shrimp and Grits With Tasso Cream

Grits cakes:

Butter

1 1/2 to 2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup stone-ground grits such as Anson Mills

2 tablespoons butter

1 large poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped or 2 small cans of chopped jalapenos

1/4 cup each grated white cheddar and Monterey Jack

Tasso cream:

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1 tablespoon finely minced shallot or onion

1 tablespoon finely minced celery

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

1/2 cup chopped tasso

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup shrimp or fish stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze of lemon juice

Shrimp:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound shrimp (16-20 count), peeled and deveined, tails on

Thyme, parsley or scallions for garnish

For grits cakes:

Butter an 8-inch square pan. Bring 1 1/2 cups water and salt to a boil in a saucepan, reduce heat to medium-high and slowly whisk in grits; cook for 1 minute. Lower to medium or medium low and cook, stirring often for 30 to 40 minutes until grits become very thick. Grits should cook at a bare bubble. Stir in more water if grits begin to stick but they do need to be very thick. Stir in butter, pepper and cheeses. Spread into pan, smooth top and press surface with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 36.

When ready to serve, cut grits into squares or circles. You'll get four for a dinner portion and six or more for a first course. Fry them in a hot, nonstick skillet over high heat until brown on each side, lower temperature to heat through and keep them warm.

For tasso cream:

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots, celery, garlic, thyme, pepper and tasso and saute until vegetables are soft. Add remaining 1 tablespoon butter and sprinkle with flour. Stir and cook for several minutes. Whisk in stock, bring to boil, then lower heat and reduce until it's thickened. Add cream and simmer for a few more minutes until thickened slightly. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste and keep warm.

For shrimp and assembly:

Preheat oven to 400. Toss shrimp in oil, salt and pepper to taste and spread in one layer on a foil or parchment-lined baking pan. Roast for 8 minutes. Don't overcook them.

To serve, put grits cakes in large, shallow bowls or rimmed plates, spoon sauce around them and divide shrimp evenly. Garnish with something green, such as sliced scallions.

Serves 4 for dinner, 6 or more for a first course.

Source: Adapted from Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

Grits are no longer just a Southern comfort food 03/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 12:51am]

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