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True Grit: Southern staple winning over new generation of fans

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

To give you an idea of how passionately grits lovers feel about grits, just ask them about Cream of Wheat.

"My mother tried to sneak Cream of Wheat (instead of grits) one morning at breakfast, and we weren't having it," says Socar Chatmon-Thomas, one of about 10 women at Hoover's Home Cooking in North Austin last weekend who were riled up at the mention of That Other Breakfast Mush, which is made from wheat instead of corn.

The women, part of a local group of grits fans called Girls Raised in the South, could have debated among themselves all day about the perfect way to eat one of the South's greatest dishes, but one thing was clear, if it's not white hominy grits, preferably like the salt-and-butter soupy kind served with eggs and sausage at Hoover's, it ain't grits.

Grits have been a staple of Southern food as long as there has been a South, but nearly every culture whose diet include corn eats some kind of cornmeal porridge, which brings us to the polemic p-word.

"Polenta is just a prettier, more sophisticated representation of cornmeal mush," says Tipton-Martin, the Austin-based journalist and former president of the Southern Foodways Alliance. From a culinary standpoint, the Italian, yellow cornmeal-based polenta and the hominy-based white Southern grits are almost identical, but culturally, they are as distinct as the languages of the cooks who prepare them. The lye in which the corn is soaked to make hominy removes some of the distinct corn color, flavor and texture found in creamy polenta, which is often allowed to set so it can be sliced.

But in recent years, the line between polenta and grits has started to blur. At restaurants across the country, chefs got bored with potatoes, pasta and rice to accompany meat or vegetables, so Tipton-Martin says they started experimenting with cornmeal grits. (No word if grits or polenta is on the menu for the cast of the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit," the John Wayne classic that the filmmakers are shooting in Granger.) In grocery stores, several commercial brands of yellow cornmeal have both "polenta" and "grits" printed on the packaging.

So why the sudden celebrity for what has long been considered poor people food? "Our palates are accustomed to chewy foods … and cheese allowed it to migrate out of breakfast," says Tipton-Martin. Only a handful of places in Austin serve the kind of soupy white breakfast grits that many of the women at the GRITS meeting insist upon, but once breakfast starts to slide into the afternoon, cheese both sharp (Cheddar) and subtle (goat) transforms grits into a thick, savory brunch side dish at restaurants including Moonshine Patio and Grill and East Side Cafe.

At breakfast, lunch and dinner, shrimp is the Barney to grits' Andy, but at places like The Woodland, Blue Star Cafeteria and Bess Bistro, you'll find pork chops, braised ribs or steak with grits as well.

At East Side Show Room, chef Sonya Cote uses coconut milk and yellow cornmeal to make curried grits (see recipe on this page) served with sautéed greens. "I like the color (of yellow cornmeal), and I think there's way more flavor," she says.

"I'm trying to open my mind to eating grits at dinner," says GRITS organizer Sandy Battise, a Savannah-born Austinite who prefers a small pat of butter on white grits cooked in water over the strong-flavored, thick grits made with milk that chefs across the country are incorporating into fine dining menus.

"I'm surprised the restaurant culture didn't catch on sooner," says Margaret Shaw, who grew up eating grits for breakfast in Southern Virginia. "Any meal is better with bacon or grits."

Sarah Simmons, a North Carolina native who is working on a book about grits that will be published next year, says grits are a blank canvas because, no matter what you call it or which kind you use, cornmeal granules absorb liquid, fat and flavors better than almost any other grain.

"Grits aren't difficult to make, once you get down the ratio," says Simmons, whose favorite grits in Austin are the Green Chili Cheese Grits from chef Larry McGuire at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue.

Want a surly grit to stand up to the braised short ribs your serving? Flavor them with butter and horseradish. Make a fluffy pillow for grilled shrimp by cooking the grits with garlic and cream. Out of couscous? Slightly undercook the cornmeal in stock instead of milk and your guests might not even tell the difference. One of Simmons' favorites ways of preparing grits is baking them with cream, cheese and any other vegetables or ingredients she has on hand. (See recipe for tomato and goat cheese bake.)

Simmons says she started experimenting with both simple and sophisticated flavor combinations during her first winter after moving from North Carolina to New York City when she was craving what she considers the ultimate comfort food. Her friends turned their noses up at the idea of eating cornmeal mush, so "I started throwing dinner parties specifically to change people's minds about grits," says Simmons, who started the blog (gritsandmore.blogspot.com) to share her recipes. "This is why I have friends now."

Simmons uses a 3-to-1 ratio of liquid to grits, often using at least one part milk or broth and stirring frequently to thicken. "When I'm making something to impress someone, I'm not going to use skim milk." (For traditional less creamy and more liquid breakfast grits, use 4 parts water to 1 part grits and don't stir while cooking.)

Thick or thin, butter or cream, grits are winning over a new generation of fans, even those who don't associate them with the comfort of mom's home cooking.

"The best part of about ability to smell and taste food is its ability to bring us back to another place and time," Simmons says. "To me, my best friend's mom growing up made the best grits, and I remember waking up in this house full of love. When I take a bite, no matter where I am, I feel that love."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Curried Grits with Greens

2 Tbsp. olive or grapeseed oil, divided

1/2 onion, diced

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup grits (Hominy or yellow cornmeal will work fine, but Cote prefers yellow cornmeal.)

2 cups water

1/2 cup coconut milk

2 tsp. red curry paste

1 tsp. yellow curry powder

1 large bunch Swiss chard, collards, spinach or other greens, chopped

In a sauce pan, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium-low heat and add onions and salt. Saute onions until caramelized, about 20 minutes. (The longer you cook them, the darker and sweeter they become.)

In the same pan with the onion, pour grits in the pan with onions and water and stir. Add water and cook, with the lid on, for 7-9 minutes. Mix in coconut milk, red curry paste and yellow curry powder. In a large saute pan, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium heat and saute greens for 3-4 minutes (longer for collard greens) until softened. Serve with grits.

- Adapted from a recipe by Sonya Cote, East Side Show Room chef

Sun-dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Grits

6 cups vegetable broth

6 Tbsp. butter

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp. salt

11/2 cup quick-cooking hominy grits

1 pint heavy cream, divided

1 cup diced drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

1 cup crumbled soft fresh goat cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter 13-inch by 9-inch glass baking dish. Bring broth, butter, salt and garlic to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Gradually whisk in grits and return mixture to boil, whisking occasionally.

Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until grits are thick and almost all broth is absorbed, whisking frequently, about 5 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup cream and simmer 5 minutes, whisking occasionally. Whisk in remaining cream and simmer until very thick, stirring often, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in tomatoes and goat cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour into prepared dish. Sprinkle remaining goat cheese over top and bake until cheese softens, about 15 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 12.

- Sarah Simmons, blogger whose cookbook 'City Grit' is set to come out next year

Braised Short Ribs w/ White Cheddar Garlic Grits

10 beef short ribs, about 8 ounces each

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup onions, diced

2/3 cup celery, diced

2/3 cup carrots, diced

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

51/2 cups beef stock

1/4 cup tomato puree

1 bay leaf

2 cups hominy grits

8 cups chicken stock

2 cups white cheddar, shredded

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Pat the ribs dry so the meat will brown evenly. Tie a piece of kitchen twine around each rib to hold it together. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet until very hot. Brown the short ribs well on both sides. Transfer the browned short ribs to a braising pan or baking pan.

In the skillet, add the onion, celery and carrots to the fat and saute until lightly browned. Stir in flour to make a roux, and cook until roux is browned. Stir in the stock and tomato puree and simmer until the sauce thickens. Add the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper.

Pour the sauce over the short ribs. Cover and braise in the oven until tender, about 2 hours. Transfer short ribs to a large baking dish or hotel pan for service. Pour the remaining sauce in a glass measuring cup and let sit. Pour off the fat that rises to the top. Taste the sauce and add any salt, pepper or stock to reach desired taste and consistency.

For grits, heat chicken stock in a saucepan and slowly stir in grits. Bring mixture to a boil while stirring. Simmer grits, stirring every 5-10 minutes until done, adding more stock if needed to control the thickness. Depending on the coarseness of the grits, this should take between 30 and 45 minutes. Add salt to taste and stir in cheese until melted.

- Monique Carter, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin student and member of G.R.I.T.S.

Tips on buying and cooking grits

• Cornmeal comes in three grinds - fine, medium and coarse - and the more coarse the grind, the longer it takes to cook. Cornmeal for polenta is often ground more finely than the cornmeal for grits, so it typically cooks faster. 'Quick' or 'instant' grits cook in just a few minutes, and coarse-ground cornmeal can take more than 30 to reach desired consistency.

• Stone-ground cornmeal is more nutritious than steel-ground, but it spoils faster because it contains parts of the germ and hull. Unless the package says 'stone-ground,' the cornmeal is probably steel-ground and will last almost indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Keep stone-ground cornmeal in the refrigerator to extend the shelf life.

• If you specifically want hominy grits, make sure 'hominy cornmeal' is listed in the ingredients. To the chagrin of Southerners, many companies are now marketing yellow cornmeal as 'grits.'

- A.B.