Grits and Groceries

April 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm 15 comments

In the past two weeks, I’ve had two good friends suddenly stop in the middle of two otherwise normal conversations, gaze off into the distance, and say, “Cheeeeeese grits.” One of those friends, a native of Mobile, Alabama, was visiting Austin from Berlin, where his 13-year residence has apparently not included a lot of hominy. The other, a well-traveled soul, has lived in Texas for all of his six decades on earth. Both men, each literally with a world of experience, were brought to a point of pause over one of the simplest dishes in the repertoire.

Maybe it’s that very simplicity that makes a bowl of cheese grits so comforting. Not that cheese grits can’t go wrong; mein Berliner complained that a bowl put in front of him in a Houston diner at the start of his visit was just grits (and watery ones at that) with cheese on top. And I once had what I thought was the bright idea to lade a batch with many, many, way too many squeezy cloves of roasted garlic, which overpowered the whole comfort angle and turned it into something rather, um, hearty and bracing when I was looking for soothing and soft.

And you probably have to have come to terms with the basic idea of grits. I grew up with them. They have always been in the pantry, right along with the oatmeal. They were inexpensive, a way for my parents to make breakfast on Saturday morning (the initial big pot of grits to serve with an egg and bacon) and have some left for Sunday (when my father would cut the cold grits into squares and fry them in butter). They stood in at supper when needed, whether because the end of month was approaching and the budget didn’t allow for more, or for comfort reasons. They featured particularly during the year I had braces, when it seemed that every tooth-tightening orthodontist appointment fell on a day when my mother had a roast in the oven (which, no matter how tender, I couldn’t begin to chew). And when I moved to New Orleans, I discovered their brunchiest use – as the base for grillades, which is a whole nother post.

I’ll be making cheese grits for my sighing Texan friend this weekend, out at a quiet ranch on the Blanco River. I’m headed to the grocery store for stone-ground grits and good Cheddar, and I’m packing my Calphalon pot, whose size and heft lets me make plenty and keeps things from sticking. It’s the least I can do for the hospitality my friend and his wife have shown to my husband and me, for someone whose “You know, I haven’t had cheese grits in the longest time” just sounded a little too forlorn. Easter brunch on the Blanco will be a thing of beauty, not only for the blue Texas skies and the fresh green of the spring pastures, the hummingbirds that have just reappeared at the feeders on the long low stone porch and the brown eggs dyed to deep jewel tones, but for the strawberries fresh from market in an old enamel bowl and the pale gold of the cheese grits carried out to the porch table and set down in front of my friend.

Basic Cheese Grits (to satisfy the craving for simple and soothing)
Prepare four servings of non-instant quick grits as directed on the package (though really, if instant is all you have and you are in need of comfort, you can make it work; just use a little less water so they’ll be thicker). As they begin to thicken past the soupy stage, add grated cheese by the handful. The kind of cheese depends on the mood you’re in and what’s in the fridge; extra-sharp cheddar is the most flavorful, a four-cheese Mexican blend is gooey in a good way, a few sprinklings of Parmesan takes you into polenta territory. Cream cheese doesn’t work like you would think it would. If your family doesn’t come to the table while it’s still piping hot and the grits set up a bit too much in the pan to be able to ladle them out in a nice creamy glob, vigorously stir in a bit of milk to thin. Serve in a bowl as is, or over gently fried eggs. Watch your friend who has been away from grits too long scrape every bit up with a spoon.

Fancier Cheese Grits
Baked Cheese Grits
from Emeril Lagasse’s Louisiana Real and Rustic, also the source of a grillades recipe that can’t be beat; love him or not, this pre-Emeril-empire cookbook is a keeper
2 c yellow grits (not quick or instant)
1 stick (1/4 lb) butter
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 T chopped garlic
8 oz cheddar, grated (about 2 cups)
3 eggs
1 c milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare grits according to package directions. Add butter, salt,black pepper, garlic, and cheese. Mix until butter and cheese melt. Beat together eggs and milk in small bowl; add to grits and mix well. Pour into square (8×2) baking dish and bake about 1 hour, or until mixture sets. Serve.

Fanciest Cheese Grits
Grits and Cheese Souffle
from Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking
1 c  quick-cooking or regular grits
2 c milk
2 c water
salt to taste
fresh ground black pepper to taste
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1/3 lb sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1-3/4 cups)
6 large eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously butter a 2-quart souffle dish and place in the freezer until ready to use. Cook grits in milk and water according to package directions. Add salt to taste. When grits are cooked, scrape into a mixing bowl (don’t use the pan, it will be too warm). Add pepper, nutmeg, and Tabasco. Stir in all but 1/2 c of the grated cheese. Let cool slightly and add the egg yolks, stirring until well blended. Beat egg whites until stiff. Add half the whites to the grits mixture and beat them in. Fold in remaining whites, using a rubber spatula. Spoon mixture into prepared souffle dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 c cheese. Place in oven and bake 25 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Serve immediately.

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April Food Day Tortizzas!

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve (Zurich)  |  April 4, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I really love the rebooted blog.

    You can add me to the list of good ole European boys needing the comfort of cheese grits. As of today, I think I’ve perfected my Comforting Brunch Polenta recipe by trial and error. Although I’ve never read a Cheese Grits recipe before today, my Brunch Polenta is almost the same as Emeril’s except not baked (and a bit less butter–that’s enough butter to kill a small child). Oh yeah. And with bacon.

    Keep the good posts coming.

    Reply
  • 2. thedinnerhour  |  April 4, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Mmm, bacon.

    Reply
  • 3. anthony stemke  |  August 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    two wonderful southern classic recipes. as a new yorker by birth, my first experience with cheese grits was watching a short order cook in georgia (usa) putting a slice of american cheese into a styrofoam cup of cooked grits a few years ago. i tried it and saw the possibilities. Craig Claiborne is, along with paul prudhomme, an idol. thanks for your words.

    Reply
    • 4. thedinnerhour  |  September 27, 2010 at 6:33 pm

      Oh, my. Quick cheese grits indeed. And yet, in a real pinch, that will do, right?

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • 5. Patti P.  |  November 28, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I have been cooking Grits Casserole for all my Detroit and Northern Friends for over 35 years – they always try them out of just being nice and then the next year want to be sure that is what I am bringing for various work luncheons. It is an awesome comfort food that I always enjoy …..

    Reply
  • 6. Kim  |  November 29, 2011 at 3:05 am

    We had them again just last night, the basic version, just right for the end of a long weekend full of big meals and household chores. Nothing like it! Thanks for your comment, and happy holidays!

    Reply
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Some of my cookbooks

In no order except for how they appear in my LibraryThing cookbook catalog: True Women Cookbook: Original Antique Recipes, Photographs, & Family Folklore, Janice Woods Windle (1997) * Made in Texas; H-E-B's 100th Anniversary Cookbook (2005) * The Texas Cowboy Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, Robb Walsh (2007) * The Silver Palate Cookbook, Julee Rosso, Sheila Lukins (1982) * In the Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks, Ti Adelaide Martin & Lally Brennan (2007) * Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine, Daniel Boulud (2006) * Moosewood Cookbook : Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Mollie Katzen (1977) * Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer's New Orleans, Susan Spicer (2007) * Saveur Cooks Authentic American: By the Editors of Saveur Magazine, ed. Colman Andrews (1998)

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