For some, the word grits is an all too descriptive name for a dish whose main feature might be unfavorably remembered as coarsely ground pieces of dried corn moistened into a mealy paste.
Not much more gastronomical romance is added by the theory that the name comes from grist, as in grist mill, or from grytte -- a Middle English word meaning coarse, or coarsely ground. But among those in the know, grits are a notable ingredient in America's culinary melting pot. Corn grits include the hull and the germ of the grain. To make hominy, you start with field corn. Soaking the dried corn kernels in a solution of baking soda, lime or wood ash for a day or two produces the traditional hominy grits. The kernel’s shell pops off, and the kernel swells to twice its size. Kernels are rinsed numerous times, then dried, and finely ground into grits. The grind can be coarse, medium or fine. Of interest, this same process is used to make masa harina, the key ingredient in corn tortillas. The alkaline soaking treatment of corn also enhances its nutritional value for many cultures. Due to the altered chemistry of the corn, grits and tortillas both prevent pellagra, a niacin deficiency disease. It’s also this alkaline treatment that makes grits different from polenta. Stick with me on this one – you are in for a new culinary treat, which should not be just enjoyed by our Southern friends.
I use coarse grind white grits for this recipe. It was a challenge to find white coarse grits in southern California on short notice. Likely the best source is Anson Mills but with my dinner party but days away and a personal commitment to introduce them to grits I had to search for other options nearby or pay overnight shipping. Cornmeal and polenta are not the same, despite what many grocers advised. I did some internet searching and found many blog comments referencing the wonderfulness of Trader Joe’s White Coarse Grits. Bingo! Look for it in the cereal section – go figure. But there they were. I bought 4 bags in fear they would not be there on a return visit and went out of my way to personally thank the manager for having them in stock. Nothing like reinforcement to get continued good stocking!
Found 'em at Trader Joe's
On a previous post – I shared a wonderful recipe for crispy polenta, (March 7, 2012), which is an easy and satisfying dish. Grits cakes are similar only I used cream cheese to end with a crispy outside and creamy in the middle. This would work as an appetizer cut into finger-sized portions with a dollop of tomato marmalade on top, or as side dish or vegetarian entrée.
- 1 large garlic clove
- 3½ C Chicken or Vegetable stock
- 2 C coarse stone-ground white grits
- 8 Tb unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
- 4 oz cream cheese at room temperature
- Kosher salt & Freshly ground black pepper
- ½ C all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- 1½ C finely ground panko crumbs
- 2 Tb coarsely chopped Italian parsley
- Canola oil
- Parchment paper
Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper. Cut a second piece the same size and set aside.
Finely chop 1 large garlic clove, sprinkle it with about ¼ tsp coarse kosher salt and work it into a paste, chopping and scraping the garlic with the side of your chef’s knife. Combine the garlic paste and 3½ C chicken or vegetable stock in a medium saucepan, season with additional salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and slowly whisk in 2 C coarse stone-ground white grits. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the grits from sticking to the bottom of the pan, for 25-30 minutes, or until all the stock has been absorbed and the grits are tender with just slight resistance. When a spoon is dragged through the grits, the bottom of the pan should remain visible.
stock absorbed, grits tender...see, you can see the bottom of the pan with one swipe of spatula
Immediately stir in 8 Tb butter, one piece at a time, stirring until it is absorbed, then stir in 4 oz cream cheese until well combined and smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the grits evenly in the prepared pan with parchment paper. Cover with second sheet of parchment paper. With your hands, smooth and compress the layer of grits. Top with a second baking sheet, weight with cans for foil wrapped bricks, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until firm, or overnight.
Remove the top pan and parchment from the grits. Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen them and invert pan onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment paper. Cut the grits into 12 or more equal pieces.
Spread ½ C flour in a shallow bowl. Beat 3 large eggs in a shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper. Combine 1½ C finely ground panko crumbs and 2 Tb chopped parsley in third shallow bowl.
Ready for dipping!
Dip each cut grit cake into flour, turning to coat and patting off excess, then dip in eggs, letting excess drip off, and coat well in panko crumb mixture. Set on a baking sheet. Pour ¼-inch of canola oil into a large nonstick frying pan and heat over medium heat until oil just begins to shimmer. Carefully add as many cakes as will fit in the pan comfortably and cook until golden on the front side, 1-2 minutes. Flip and cook until golden on the second side, 1-2 minutes. If eating soon, transfer to a rack over a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve. Or they can be fried a few hours a head, kept at room temp or refrigerated – and reheated later. It is best that they be fried on the day of serving. Fry remaining cakes, adding more oil as needed. It at any point there are burnt panko crumbs in the oil, discard the oil and replace with fresh oil before continuing.
After dipping the grits
....and after cooking
These can be served as an appetizer, perhaps on a bed of tomato sauce, and/or a dollop of tomato sauce on top. Or, it can be served as a side dish. I have done both – most recently as a side to Miso Marinate Fish with Beurre Blanc. (Posted June 26, 2013) – it was amazing! It is also a great vegetarian entrée with some green vegetables or salad.
Another grits presentation
There are many wines that would pair well with this dish- both whites and reds. If serving as an appetizer, champagne would be perfect – or a buttery California Chardonnay. If a side dish, pair the wine to the entrée as very few wines would not pair well with this versatile dish.
We love it. Give grits a try and you will too!
Adapted from “Ad Hoc at Home” by Thomas Keller