Born and raised in Metro Detroit, I am a Yankee through and through. Years living on the East coast only helped solidify this. In the past, when I heard Paula Dean raving about grits on the Food Network, I was intrigued, but grits were something I categorized with chitlins and other foreign Southern foods. Luckily for me, the last restaurant I worked at, the Beverly Hills Grill, opened my eyes to the wonder and versatility of grits. Ironically, this restaurant is located in Metro Detroit (shame on me). The Beverly Hills Grill (or BHG) is a creative, contemporary American restaurant that miraculously pumps out a minimum of eight new specials daily. At the BHG, I served grits in multiple capacities: from shrimp and grits for brunch to coriander-dusted swordfish with smoked Gouda and green chile grits (yum!) for dinner.
Grits are, in a word, fantastic. They are creamy (even without dairy), grainy, and soul-soothing. They are perfect with stewed vegetables (one of my personal favorites), or as a side dish with any sort of protein in lieu of potatoes, pasta, or other starch. And don’t be fooled by polenta: soft polenta and grits are the same thing, prepared the same way. I call the exact same dish by different names purely based on the context of whatever I am serving them with. Below, you will see a recipe for shrimp and grits, just without the shrimp. I have nothing against shrimp, but I didn’t have any at the time. Plus, grits are rich (especially with the amount of cheese that I like in them) and the purity of the vegetables counteracts that richness. This is quite satisfying as a vegetarian dish.
1 small onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
6-8 oz. button mushrooms, quartered (I use cute, little ones if possible)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-14 oz. can of diced tomatoes (I like petite diced in this recipe)
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
½ teaspoon of dried basil
½ teaspoon of hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup quick cooking grits
2 cups water
Salt, garlic salt, pepper (all to taste)
1 cup shredded cheese (anything that melts well; I used mild white cheddar)
● Sauté onion and bell pepper in about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat for a few minutes. (You could add a link or two of andouille sausage here, however I have never done this). Then add oregano, basil, hot pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Sauté for a total of 8-10 minutes, or until tender.
● Add mushrooms and garlic. Add another drizzle of olive oil if the pan looks dry. Re-season if necessary. Sauté for about 5 minutes, or until mushrooms start to soften and release some of their liquid.
● Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Reduce heat and simmer. Check seasoning and simmer for about 10 minutes or until it is hot and bubbly and the flavors have come together. (Optional: add raw shrimp and cook until they are opaque).
● While vegetables simmer, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Season the water before adding grits as you see fit (I usually add a generous pinch of salt and some garlic salt or garlic powder). You can add more seasoning at the end, but it is best to add a little to the foundation.
● Then stir in grits, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes or until grits at tender, stirring occasionally. Then re-season and add cheese. For this amount of grits, I add a generous cup, but if you aren’t a cheese mega-fan, you may want to cut it back a little.
● Serve stewed vegetables over grits. Garnish with extra cheese and parsley if desired.
Comments: I really love this dish. It can handle pretty much any vegetable you might want to add to it: zucchini, corn, or some fresh spinach wilted in at the end. It is lovely with okra. I adore the way those little pods pop in your mouth and release their slimy goodness. While sliminess and good food generally do not go hand in hand, okra is an exception to this rule. But I digress.
If you are lucky enough to have extra grits (I make certain that I am in such a position), you can make the ever-desired grit cakes. On this particular occasion, I ate grit cakes with leftover stewed vegetables and an over-medium egg, but they do not require an accompaniment.
Delicious Grit Cakes: Using chilled leftover grits, scoop them up and shape them into patties that are close to an inch thick, so they don’t fall apart. Cook them in a skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium-high to high heat with a drizzle olive oil or butter. Once the cakes are in the pan, DO NOT touch them for at least a minute, most likely 2-3 minutes more depending on how high your heat it. This will allow them to form a crust. But be careful not to let them burn; it’s better for them to be beige, rather than charred. It’s very difficult for me to get them to brown sufficiently (as you can see by the photos). They begin to lose their shape and return to their former quasi-liquid state, and it just gets challenging to handle them and to achieve a deep golden color. However, it is not challenging to coax them into being delicious; in fact, it takes no coaxing at all. Grit cakes and deliciousness simply cannot resist each other.