The Most Important Meal of the Day
Until recently and for the most part, I've never been big on grits - so let's just get that out of the way.
However, things may change. You never know.
Back when I lived at home and when Mom use to cook, I ate grits more regularly because that's what she would make, usually with lots of butter and brown sugar. I think my mom figured out early on that if you add fat and sugar to practically anything you could make anyone happy. Because of an earlier bad childhood experience, my Mom took this notion of happiness to the extreme and put quite a bit of weight on her son, so much so that I became pudgy from all the biscuits, french toast, and grits she would make.
She, on the other hand, was and is so skinny she makes Karen Carpenter look like Mama Cass with a ham sandwich and a bag of chips.
Even though I don't eat grits regularly, I do keep them around – partially for the sentimental value and partially because I like an abundant and diverse pantry.
This morning I started off with my usual cup of coffee and added grits to the menu, since yogurt and eggs are starting to bore me. Grits are real easy to make and clean up after. But most importantly, they are hot and comforting and hearty, which is perfect for such a cold day here in the city.
I frickin' love this bowl!
And, yes, it is so cold it could freeze a witch's tit. I know. I saw a wiccan in the bulk foods aisle at Rainbow – tit: frozen.
At least it's not cold and raining. I've had a pretty serious hole in my right shoe that I keep ignoring...until it rains; and then it seems to suck up moisture like a sponge.
Anyway, back to the witch's tit: Rainbow Grocery is where I bought my grits. Most of the local stores that stock grits only have the instant stuff, but Rainbow sells the Arrowhead Mills variety which requires a longer cooking time. Of course, longer is relative here – it only means 5 minutes. I think, though, that if I'm going to get serious about grits I need to go to the source, and that means going to the South. Fortunately there are a few old-timey mills in the South that still sell grits to the general public. And fortunately there is the Internet, where we can place an order online or at least find a telephone number.
Here are a couple of places I'm checking out.
I'm also exploring new sources for sorghum, which is a sweetener I'm using as a substitute for sugar on my grits. The taste, color, and consistency of sorghum is somewhere between molasses and honey, with it leaning closer to honey than molasses; only not as sweet. I know it's hard to describe, but the flavor is wonderful and you should really try it.
The sorghum I have now I bought at a natural foods store in Half Moon Bay a few weeks back. When I got home to investigate the sorghum maker, their website had been removed and a Google search proved fruitless. I'm not worried about the sorghum - I'm sure it's fine. But unless there's another local place that has a web presence or something which explains to me who makes it and how it's made, I'm going to buy my sorghum from small, Southern producers.
Sorghum is grown in California (Bruce had some on the ranch he grew up on) where it is called "milo", but it's mostly used to feed livestock. The plant is actually native to Africa and was brought to the Americas in the mid-19th century. It became popular as a sweetener in impoverished regions where farmers had a limited growing season or land and because the price of granulated sugar at the time was higher than most people could afford. Sorghum production declined sharply after World War II with the rise of sugar derived from sugar beets and corn syrup which, if you've ever read Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma", you know is used in everything.
Today only a small number sorghum syrup producers remain and almost all of them are "family farmers" – or small businesses. The practice of growing and producing sorghum for syrup has diminished so much that it's listed on Slow Food USA's "Ark of Taste" as an endangered food.
Oh my goodness, am I still talking about sorghum? My damn grits are getting cold!
Grits are real easy to make. In fact, they're just as easy to make as polenta.
I was going to make a joke about how polenta is to grits like Oxycontin is to Hillbilly Heroin, but actually polenta and grits, while similar, are not the same. First of all, I have never known any Southerner to eat yellow grits. All grit-eaters I've ever met eat grits made from white corn. If you are the exception – well, bless your heart! The classic Lowcountry dish, Shrimp and Grits, is also made with white corn grits...usually.
You could use grits to make grilled "polenta" triangles for your fancy canapes, since the Italian term "polenta", like "pesto", is more interchangable with other ingredients, such as farro or bulgar. However, traditional grits are made with white grits, not with rolled oats, wheat (otherwise known as "farina"), or yellow corn.
Left: Polenta, Right: Grits
If you were in a bind and had to use either/or, I'm sure you would do fine. The only physical difference between the two, other than color, is that grits are usually de-hulled (using an alkali solution, like lye) before they are ground.
For the most part, they cook just the same.
To make grits, measure out half a cup of grits, plus a pinch of salt, per every two cups of water. Bring your water to a boil and then stir in the grits.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer covered for 4-5 minutes, stirring once or twice.
When they get to the consistency of a (I hate this word) "gruel", or better yet "jook/congee", they're ready to eat. The taste of grits on their own isn't anything to write home, or a blog entry, about. The taste is pretty bland, with perhaps just a mild hint of corn flavor coming through. I'm not saying they're tasteless, but you do have to have a pretty sharp palate to appreciate grits by themselves.
The butter and sorghum definitely kicks grits up a notch. Like salt on a tomato, the addition of sweet and buttery raises the flavor profile of grits considerably and allows them to truly shine.
The last thing you should know: eat grits while they're hot, because cold grits are about as comforting as wet socks.
And don't even get me started on wet socks.