From M., July 5, 2011 – Grits: what the..?
Q: I am reading a book about the lead up to D-Day and it describes Eisenhower relaxing with his favourite food, including grits. WTF?
A: Thanks for your question. I always enjoy these questions from readers abroad, because it makes me feel less embarrassment about American ignorance of foreign cuisines. Hey, remind me to ask why Australian burgers include beetroot and egg. WTF indeed.
Anyway, grits. Have you had corn polenta? Then you’ve basically had grits. Grits are coarsely ground dried corn and a staple of the American South, where towns used to feature a grist mill for grinding the various grains farmers brought from their land. Corn ground to coarse bits the size of kosher salt grains (more or less) are called grits; those ground to a finer, though not powdery, texture are cornmeal. The whole kernel, hull and all, makes yellow grits; white grits are ground from hulled corn.
Sometimes, grits denotes a dish made from corn that has been soaked in alkaline lye or potash to remove its hull and to make the corn’s essential B vitamin niacin available to humans. This process, called nixtamalization, is used to process corn for tortillas. In either case, the nixtamalized corn is called hominy or mote; dried and ground for tortilla dough, it is called masa harina. I haven’t cooked hominy grits before, and I think you’re unlikely to find hominy outside the United States and Central America, although shops specializing in Mexican products might carry the canned product.
Once cooked (see below), grits are a favorite side dish, especially at breakfast. Find them in a little cup sitting next to your eggs, or with a few slices of country ham and redeye gravy, or maybe right beside your fried chicken. Stir in some shredded cheese, like a sharp aged Cheddar, a creamy, tangy cheese like cream cheese or chèvre, or eat them simply sesasoned with butter and salt.
If you can’t find grits – likely the case if you live outside the South – look for coarsely ground corn polenta, or feel free to use cornmeal. Cornmeal is widely available and yields a similar result. Note to British and Australian friends: you may find it described as maize meal. Don’t use what you call cornflour – that’s what we call cornstarch, and it’s basically just a thickening or coating agent.
4 c filtered water or a combination of 2 c milk and 2 c water.
1 tsp salt
1 c stone-ground yellow or white corn grits or polenta
2+ tbsp unsalted butter (basically as much as you like)
Bring 4 c of salted water (or the milk and water) to a rolling boil in a saucepot; whisk in the grits, raining the grits into the boiling water slowly while whisking. Whisk constantly for about three minutes; then cover and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Let the grits simmer and thicken for about 20 minutes, whisking frequently, until thick and smooth. Whisk in butter and season with salt and white pepper to taste.
Your grits will set up and become firm on cooling; this is because the starch in the corn takes on water and expands (gelatinization). Gelatinization is necessary for the grits to become soft and thick, but it continues beyond the end of cooking time, and the grits won’t stay loose for long. For this reason, serve in a bowl, not a plate, and a warm one if you can, for soft grits. Once the grits set up, you can cut into squares or other shapes and fry until crisp in oil or butter.
Shrimp and grits
Shrimp and grits is the archetypical Low Country dish (the Low Country being coastal South Carolina extending from Pawleys Island past Charleston, south to right around Savannah, Georgia). In my version, a fresh corn purée lightens the grits, makes them taste more corn-y, and helps keep them creamy and loose. I don’t really like rich dairy other than butter with seafood; the corn purée takes the place of cream or cheese and keeps the dish from becoming too heavy. If you want to skip the corn purée for a more classic shrimp and grits, you can.
You don’t have to cook the corn or the shrimp en sous vide, but doing so will yield the freshest, most vivid flavors. I have provided alternative instructions; choose your weapon. The photos depict the sous vide process. Note that the shrimp remains basically straight and flat, and haven’t curled up and out the way that shrimp will if cooked conventionally over higher heat. This is because the low heat prevents muscle contraction.
4 slices bacon
2 ear corn, preferably yellow
4 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
recipe for grits (from above), prepared with half milk and half water; you can prepare while cooking the corn
1 1/2 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 sprigs thyme
4 tbsp unsalted butter
scant 1 tsp celery salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder (if cooking en sous vide) or 3 cloves garlic (if cooking conventionally), sliced as thinly as possible
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 scallions, sliced very thinly (like chives)
1/4 c flat-leaf parsley, snipped
Place the bacon in a skillet over medium heat. Cook until the bacon is crisp and brown on one side; turn over and continue to cook until the bacon is well-cooked and crisp, and all its fat rendered. Pour off all but 1 tbsp of the bacon fat; drain the bacon on paper towels until cool. Process the bacon in a food processor or spice grinder to a crumbly coarse powder.
Shuck the corn and cut off the kernels. Set aside. Break the cob in half or in thirds (depending on size).
Bring the cobs and herbs to a simmer in a small pot in 1 c water; simmer 15 minutes. Strain through a chinois. If cooking conventionally, barely simmer the corn kernels in the corn cob broth for about 6 minutes, until tender. [If cooking en sous vide, bag the corn and 1/2 c corn cob broth. Vacuum pack. Drop the bag in a circulator set to 185F/85C and cook for 20 minutes.]
Transfer, liquid and all, to a vitaprep or blender and purée until as smooth as possible. If you have time, push through a tamis/sieve to smooth out, but don’t worry too much about this step.
Cook the grits as described above while the corn cooks, omitting the butter. Whisk together the cooked grits with the corn purée. Whisk in the butter and season with salt and white pepper. This recipe makes more grits than you will eat with the shrimp.
If cooking conventionally, place the skillet used to cook the bacon (with the residual grease and fond) over medium heat and, when hot, add the garlic. Sweat for a minute until just fragrant. Add the shrimp, season with celery salt, and reduce heat. Cook until just cooked through on both sides and opaque to the center. Season with a little Tabasco and lemon juice.
[If cooking en sous vide, evenly season the shrimp with the celery salt and garlic powder. Bag in a single layer with the butter and thyme and vacuum pack. You may need more than one bag. Cook at 138F/59C for about 10-13 minutes (up to 20 if your shrimp are very large, like 8-10s, but go by appearance – they only need to be cooked through). Don’t leave in the bath too long or enzymatic activity will make the shrimp mushy. Remove from bag and season with additional celery salt if necessary (it shouldn’t be, given the saltiness of the shrimp). Combine the melted butter from the sous vide bag with Tabasco and juice of 1/2 lemon.]
Spoon grits into a shallow bowl and top with shrimp. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions, parsley, and the bacon. If you cooked the shrimp en sous vide, spoon over the Tabasco- and lemon-seasoned butter.