The nitty-gritty on Southern delicacy

Mar. 04, 2014 @ 10:28 AM

In high school, I went to a CYO retreat. In the morning we were given powdered, scrambled eggs and grits. We all sat down outside to eat picnic style. 
Suddenly heads began popping up from all over the field. It looked quite like a convention of startled prairie dogs. 
As each person took a bite of their grits, they realized something was very, very wrong. These grits were not our familiar creamy Southern breakfast starch.  It was hard white gravel suspended in water. They were literally gritty. So gritty in fact, that they could have sanded the chrome off the bumper of a ’57 Chevy.
It turns out the person responsible for preparing the grits thought she was working with the instant kind.
Nope.
My dad’s from Pennsylvania, and my mom’s from Jersey, so I wasn’t raised on grits, and never developed a taste for them. My breakfast starch of choice is hash browns. 
But I’d never really had authentic Southern grits until I attended the Chapel Hill shrimp and grits cook-off a couple of years ago. At that time, I realized that in the right hands, grits can be awfully good. 
And then I hung out in the kitchen of the Carolina Crossroads restaurant, on the UNC campus, with Chef James Clark and his staff.
I saw a plate covered with what looked like canned creamed corn. When I asked about it, they not only told me it was grits, they gave me a sample, topped with a couple of shrimp, and drizzled with Chef’s surprising and delicious country ham Madeira gravy.
I was instantly a convert. I wanted these again, and I wanted them in my own kitchen, so I could make them whenever the mood struck.
The grits were from Anson Mills (http://ansonmills.com/) in South Carolina. It’s owned by a very nice man named Glenn Roberts, who’s made it his mission to revive heirloom corn and rice varieties. The type Chef James uses is something called Rosebank Gold Native Bohiket mixed grits. It’s a mixture of both fine and coarse ground corn. I ordered some.
Because as with other freshly milled grits the germ is not removed, it can go rancid quickly, so it’s shipped frozen and should be stored frozen.
Once I got my grits, I needed Chef James’ directions for turning them into that warm, delectable ambrosia I’d enjoyed at the Carolina.
And like he’d done so many times before, he kindly, generously, sent me the instructions.

Carolina Crossroad’s Bohikets Grits
3 Cups Stone Ground Grits
6 Cups Milk
3 Cups Water
¼ Pound Butter
Salt and Pepper

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First soak the grits in cold water and skim away all of the corn germ that floats to the top.  Stir a few times and get as much of the germ skimmed away as possible. In a heavy bottomed pot bring the water and milk to a simmer then drain the cold water from the grits and mix them into the hot liquid with a whisk so there are no lumps.   Then let them cook slowly for about an hour to an hour and a half, stirring often.  Once the grits are cooked and soft add in the butter and season with the salt and pepper.  If grits become too thick add just a little milk.
*Debbie’s notes:  Don’t skip the soaking and skimming steps, it makes a huge difference in the final product.  Also, this makes a giant batch, so you can either halve it, or store the remaining cooked grits in the fridge and reheat with a bit of milk.  I love them topped with thinly sliced steak and a light pan sauce.
Even if you don’t get your hands on Anson Mills, this is North Carolina, so freshly milled grits are easy to find. But each type has its own particular way it  likes to be cooked, so do a little research into yours.
And the next time some uninitiated Yankee starts trash-talking Southern cuisine, fill his mouth with some freshly milled grits cooked with love and lots of butter.
I’ll bet they say, “Where can I get some of them grits y’all made?  They’re so good, they make me wanna slap my momma!”

Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is momsequitur@gmail.com.