Thursday, March 28, 2013

True Grits.

[ Pictured above: shrimp & grits, a match celestially ordained in heaven, much like peanut butter & jelly. Like salt & pepper. Like fried things & ranch. Like Hall & Oates. ]

Let's talk about slow-cooked cornmeal for a moment, shall we? I may have moved basically from the bottom of the country to the top, but the place where I'm from is not exactly the grits-eating South. Rather, we're a Southwestern state whose food influences, beyond Sonoran Mexican and T.G.I. Fridays, are a little hard to pin down. We are the lovers of neon orange nacho cheese, we are the creators of pickled jalapeno-covered hot dogs. Crunchy yellow corn tortilla chips? Yes. Creamy spoonfuls of soft, tender cornmeal goodness? Well, not likely.

In fact, I'd really only ever thought of 'grits' as a punchline, some vaguely exotic food thing that they ate over down in the Real South, along with other funny and mysterious things like 'chitlins' (what were those?), 'hushpuppies' and 'red-eye gravy'. Or else I'd thought of them as one of the only two fitting ends to the expression 'Kiss My......'. For the first few decades of my life, I'll admit that nary a single grit graced my plate.

[ Ready for my Spring Awakening....any day now? ]

But two things have lately turned me around on the issue. First, that New York is a city obsessed with brunch (Seriously. More on that later), and shrimp & grits is possibly the world's best brunch dish. But having other and honestly, preferred things to do on a Sunday morning like lounge romantically in bed, leaf slowly through the weekend Times and maybe start the crossword, scavenge at a farmer's market for the ripest tomatoes like a proper, food-obsessed yuppie....I have to admit that while I like brunch, I'd just prefer to be on terms with it under another name: 'dinner'. So the brunches in my life tend to take place not out in the world, but in my kitchen around evening time. Second, it's been cold, and despite an equinox and a daylight savings time change, spring has not yet arrived. When it's mid-March and the weather still looks like the photo above, well, you too might turn to the humble cornmeal grit and its warm, comforting embrace.

Properly gussied up with sweet, buttery & smoked paprika-spiked shrimp, a little sautéed spinach, a sprinkling of chives, and one perfectly poached egg, this is the absolute pinnacle of brunch for a Southerner, a Northerner....even a displaced Southwesterner. And you can have it for dinner! In fact, I have to recommend that you should. All the better to properly enjoy that mimosa, right?

[ Before we get started, I'm going to have to throw on my pedant's hat--I always picture this hat as being tall, sharp and pointy, with a slanted and slightly judgmental-looking brim that pulls down low over one eye, if you need a mental picture of me wearing it--for a few moments and make clear that when I talk about grits, I am talking about a basic porridge made from medium or coarsely ground yellow cornmeal. In Italy, it's known as polenta. Technically, the 'grits' of the New World (including the grits widely known in the South) should refer only to hominy grits, which are made from corn that had been treated with an alkaline solution in a process called nixtamalization, before being dried and ground. This forms masa, or masa harina, which is used to make many delicious things such as tortillas, tamales, arepas, even those crunchy yellow tortilla chips so beloved by my hometown and, yes, say it with me now......classic grits.  However. As a steaming, wonderful pile of delicious food sitting in front of you, there is functionally almost no difference between a plate of polenta and a plate of grits, so the definition I'm going to go with leans heavily toward the polenta side. As do I, after two or three plates of polenta. Pedantic, David Foster Wallace-length footnote is now concluded. (whips off hat) ]

'Perfect' Grits with Smoked Paprika Shrimp

(makes approximately 4 servings)

[adapted from Marcella Hazan's excellent instructions for creamy polenta]

4 cups of liquid (I usually interpret this as 3 cups of water and 1 of milk, although for flavor I have sometimes substituted in chicken or vegetable stock for some of the water. Just keep the ratio of liquid to cornmeal at 4:1 no matter what the amount, and you'll be fine)

1 cup cornmeal/polenta (do not buy anything labeled 'instant' or 'quick-cooking')

2 T. sugar or honey

2 T. butter (at least)

1/4 c. chives, finely chopped

1 tsp. salt, plus extra (to taste)

Bring liquid, sugar or honey and 1 tsp. of salt to a boil in large, heavy stockpot. Add polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly to prevent clumps. Reduce heat to medium and cook while whisking constantly for two minutes. The mixture will look very thin at first, then gradually thicken to a more 'porridge'-like consistency. 

Reduce heat to low and cover the pot, cooking at barely a simmer for 45 minutes. You no longer need to stir it constantly, but you do need to check on it and stir it with a long-handled wooden spoon for one minute out of every ten minutes of cooking, until it is fully cooked. The sooner you can accept the next thing I am about to tell you, the sooner you can begin to relax and just expect it--it is going to stick to your pan. Like, a lot. It's going to form a kind of crust on the bottom of your stockpot. Relax, you are not ruining your cookware. Pour yourself a glass of wine if you need to, and just keep stirring that baby every ten minutes or so. 

When all the grains have softened and your polenta seems done, remove it from the heat and add the chives and butter. Taste (carefully, remembering that this substance has the temperature and consistency of molten lava) and add salt according to preference. Let cool slightly, but serve warm.

1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined

2 T. butter

2 tsp. smoked paprika

1 clove fresh garlic, minced

Heat a skillet over medium heat and melt butter completely. Add paprika and mix thoroughly, then add shrimp, tossing to coat in the buttery mixture. Cook for a few minutes (time will vary) until shrimp is nearly all pink, then add garlic and increase the heat to medium high. Cook for thirty seconds more, or until garlic is golden and fragrant, then remove from heat. Serve immediately over warm polenta.

If you're looking to top this all with a poached egg and really, I wouldn't blame you, I like to use Thomas Keller's foolproof (truly!) method involving vinegar, which can be found here. Happy brunching!

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