I came across grits, that all-American gem, while stationed down South during my time in the Marine Corps. And I got to love them. I was, and remained hooked on grits. This archetypical Southern staple is like no other. Strange that a kid from Spanish Harlem should become so enamored of this dish but, then, why not?
Grits are of North American Indian origin. It is simply coarsely ground corn. The preferred version in the South is hominy grits. This is field corn that is soaked in lye water (what in the old days was known as potash water). The corn kernels swell to twice their size, and are then dried and ground. Hominy as an Indian food goes back to at least 5,000. When European colonists came to the Americas, the Indians taught them how to make it. Hominy comes in three varieties: fine, medium or coarse. A newer innovation, quick grits, is very fine grain that has been pre-steamed. But no real Southerner would ever eat or cook quick grits. That would be sacrilege. To them the old-fashioned stone ground gits is the real deal.
Grits comprise the typical Southern breakfast. They are nominally served with butter, sausage, country ham or red-eye gravy. The words "grits" is derived from the Old English "grytt," meaning coarse corn meal. As such grits is similar to corn-based porridges such as the Italian polenta and the ever popular farina. Besides breakfast, grits has another use: when I was down South they would take leftover cold grits, slice it like bread and fry the slices in oil. Another way to enjoy this heavenly item.
When making grits, the rule of thumb is that grits it will consume four times their volume. So, for 1 cup of grits use 4 cups or water or chicken stock, and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. I recall that grits was popularized in the 70s TV series Alice where the waitress, Flo, working at Mel's Roadside Diner, would always exclaimed, "Mel, kiss mah grits!" And, just one more fact, there's even a World Grits Festival held yearly in St. George, South Carolina.
The recipe given below is simply grits cooked with onion, garlic, nutmeg, red pepper, Cheddar cheese and eggs. Then the whole thing is baked in a casserole. Another innovative way to cook grits, and it's scrumptious.
CHEESE BAKED GRITS
1 cup grits
4 cups boiling water or chicken stock
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
4 eggs, separated
1. Stir grits into boiling water or stock. Add salt and cook until soft.
2. As the grits cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
3. In a small pan, melt the butter and saute the onion and garlic until soft.
4. Add to the cooked grits along with the nutmeg, red pepper and Cheddar cheese. Stir to combine.
5. Let cool slightly and add the egg yolks. In a small separate bowl beat egg whites until stiff and they hold soft peaks. Fold into grits mixture.
6. Spoon mixture into a casserole (about 2 quarts). Here I prefer to use a cast-iron pan. But any good baking pan or souffle dish will do. Place in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until desired degree of doneness.
Yield: Six or more servings.