Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Corn in the Mornin'
I woke up out at Bide-A-Wee recently with a powerful craving for grits. White corn grits, the good, long-simmered kind, preferably hominy grits, with that appetizing masa-like aroma. Since I woke up in the middle of Wisconsin, I quickly accepted the fact that my craving would not be fully satisfied that day. While biscuits and sausage gravy--a dish I think of as being almost as southern as grits--is surprisingly common on Wisconsin diner and café menus (with wildly varying preparations, as well as levels of edible-ness), I've yet to encounter grits anywhere in Minne'Sconsin, other than a specifically southern-themed restaurant.
I first got a taste for white corn grits during the year I spent in graduate school in Roanoke, Virginia (1985-86, things were still cooling down from the Civil War...). And honestly, most of the grits I consumed there, as part of a typical diner breakfast, were not very good. Those generally were made from instant or quick-cooking grits. Their flavor was wan, and their main function was to soak up butter, salt and pepper, Tabasco, and egg yolks. Wishing to attempt a better rendition at home, I found that, even in Virginia, it was pretty hard to find honest, genuine, long-cooking grits. And up here in the frozen north? Think, "mail order."
I've tried two kinds of vaunted mail-order grits. A few years back I ordered an assortment of ground corn products from the relatively famous, extremely expensive Anson Mills . And I was not impressed, not by any of what I bought. That turned me off of pricey excursions into southern foodstuffs, until I was introduced to Hoppin' John's grits by Mike Phillips--then the chef at Craftsman restaurant , now the main man behind the utterly toothsome charcuterie of Green Ox Meat Co. Mike did a demo at the Midtown Farmers Market where he grilled previously cooked, molded, unmolded and sliced chunks of the Hoppin' John's grits, served them with grilled vegetables, I believe, and perhaps some of his early ventures into prosciutto making. A tasty day at the market, indeed.
So I ordered a few pounds, and enjoyed them while we had them. But then, you know, with that whole local-seasonal thing we've got going here, I didn't keep up on the food through the mail. But I might have to order some again. A steaming plate of fragrant grits makes an exceptionally appealing basis for a winter breakfast. The most recent Saveur features another brand, Old School . These sound like the real deal, and are reasonably priced, $3.49 for a two-pound bag, plus shipping.
Hoppin John's website is wonky today.
But back to that Wisconsin October morning, and a very reasonable solution to my grits craving, all things considered: coarse polenta from Whole Grain Milling , finished with a handful of smoked Marieke gouda ; home-smoked bacon; Sami's delicious free-range eggs from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm . While it did not move us to start conversing in a southern drawl, we gave it two hearty "You betcha!"s, and we cleaned our plates.
How we make polenta: four parts water to one part polenta. We find that 1/3 cup polenta makes a good two-person portion, so we heated 1 1/3 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, and stir in the grits using a fork or a whisk. Keep stirring vigorously until the mixture is smooth--we haven't found lumping to be a problem with this polenta, so long as you stir briskly as you add them. Now turn the heat down way low, and stir the polenta often with a wooden spoon or the like. You don't have to stir constantly, but when you do stir, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen anything adhering there. They'll be done in 20 to 25 minutes. Just before serving we always stir in a nice spoon of butter, and season well with salt and pepper. And, as mentioned, a handful of grated smoked gouda enriched this breakfast version.
In a comment to a recent post here Tom mentioned "explosions of hot corn magma," those sometimes vexing and messy (and even painful, if you wind up in the line of fire) volcanic eruptions in the polenta pot. We don't seem to have too much trouble with this, and I think that's because: 1) We keep the heat very, very low, and 2) The 4:1 ratio uses more water than many recipes call for; as the mixture only thickens toward the end, less likelihood of explosions.
As fall turns to winter and the braising pot rarely leaves the stove, polenta becomes a more and more common part of our meals--breakfast to lunch to supper.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw