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Grits go uptown

As a born-and-bred native of the Ohio Valley, the cultural boundary where the American South meets the North and the Midwest, I've always had a nodding acquaintance with grits without really knowing them well.

Fifty miles or so north of here, this humble dish is hardly known, and usually attended with mockery when the subject arises. Fifty miles south, it's one of the basic food groups, served at every meal. In our house in Louisville, grits were never a breakfast item, only a dinner starch, an occasional substitute for potatoes or rice ... except, of course, at Kentucky Derby season, when cheese grits are as traditional as mint juleps on the first Saturday in May.

The always-plural grits, for those who haven't met them up close and personal, are simply ground hominy (white corn kernels with the hull and germ removed by treatment with lye), cooked as a thick porridge. Polenta or cornmeal mush are closely related and may be substituted in today's recipe if you can't get or don't like grits, although you'll lose the characteristic hominy flavor.

It's generally thought of as simple country fare, more likely to turn up at truck stops than white-tablecloth eateries. But recently I've noticed an interesting trend at some of our fanciest restaurants, particularly those that seek out and celebrate local and regional ingredients and produce and come up with innovative variations on traditional techniques that showcase them: "Grits cakes," variously interpreted by local chefs, are savory rounds of coarsely ground grits flavored with compatible ingredients and spices; they're used as a base for, and starch course with, meat, poultry or seafood.

I've seen them done with ingredients as diverse as coconut (as a base for Thai-accented prawns) and chipotle peppers (under seared scallops); some use eggs to make a custardy finished dish, and the Tuscan polenta crostini - a pan of polenta allowed to thicken, then cut in squares - offers a simple approach that's grits-free.

The basic procedure, in any case, is simple and infinitely variable: Make grits (or polenta or mush). Mix in cheese, spices and other savory ingredients to your liking. Form into rounds and serve warm or cold, as a base for any compatible topping. What could be simpler?

Here's an easy version I made recently, flavoring the grits with Swiss gruyere cheese and caramelized onions. It made an outstanding base for sliced sauteed duck breast. Don't be constrained by my ingredients, though. Try your own combinations ... and let me know what you come up with!

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1/2 medium yellow or white onion
1 tablespoon (15g) olive oil
3 ounces (100g) regular or instant grits
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) water
2 ounces Gruyere cheese


1. Chop the onion coarsely - it should be enough to make about 1/4 cup - and sautee in the olive oil until golden brown and sweet. Grate the cheese, freely substituting any cheese of your liking.

2. Make the grits according to package instructions. I used three 1-ounce packets of instant grits, a project that required no more effort than bringing 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil, then stirring same into the grits in a saucepan. Regular grits or polenta will require longer simmering and stirring.

3. Over very low heat, add the caramelized onions and the cheese to the grits, stirring until the cheese is fully incorporated. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. If you're inspired to try other herbs and spices, now's the time to let your imagination do its work.

4. Lightly grease a couple of small bowls with olive oil, and pour half the grits mixture into each. Allow to cool and thicken, then gently remove from the bowls and plate them as a base for your main course. (As another experimental approach, you might try sauteeing the rounds in a nonstick skillet or running them under a broiler, but this step didn't seem necessary.)

WINE MATCH: Chances are you won't be eating the grits cakes alone, in which case you'll want to match your wine to the primary ingredient; we paired the accompanying Grimaud Farms Muscovy duck breast with an excellent, Rhone-style California red, Edmunds St. John 2000 "Los Robles Viejos." If you did want to match a wine directly with this particular grits-cake recipe, I would go with a sharply acidic white - maybe a Swiss Chasselas to greet the Gruyere - or perhaps a full-bodied Champagne.

Want to a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Grits go uptown"

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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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