As a kid I microwaved my grits. My mother would no more have slow cooked the suckers than slaughtered a chicken. So instead, I stirred my Uncle Ben’s together with Velveeta singles and crumbled sausage, plopped myself down in front of Pee Wee Herman and called it a fine Saturday morning. I knew I lived in the South of course, but I had no sense of the term Southern food and I had no inkling that the grits I microwaved could or should have been prepared any other way. When I was 21, I moved to Manhattan in search of excitement, love, and employment. I got a job working in advertising, but after two years and 9/11, found myself training to be a server in a soon-to-open Greenwich Village restaurant, called Voyage. The restaurant’s focus would be Southern food via the African diaspora....Do What?A lot of things happened for me at Voyage. I met and fell in love with Ben, made several life-long friends, and discovered my passion for food beyond just eating it. The staff, all of us extremely green by NYC restaurant standards, went through a week-long training session, much of which was conducted by Chef Scott Barton. Scott is a walking encyclopedia of food history and facts. In between lectures on slightly effervescent vs. sparkling water, he would come out of the kitchen erupting with knowledge, exhaustion, and enthusiasm for the foods I grew up eating. He told lengthy stories about how the watermelon got here and the importance of hearty greens like collards. On the final day of our staff training, Scott brought out what would become the signature dish of Voyage: Truffled Scallops with Grits and Red Eye Gravy. It blew my mind. I’m not sure what I loved more, the scallops, the truffles or the decadent, earthy grits.I knew enough at this point that I was pretty sure he had not microwaved those grits back in the kitchen. I also knew Uncle Ben probably did not provide them. I, however, did not know there was a rebirth of quality grit production in the South and Scott would be a pioneer in promoting it.Scott’s truffled scallops with grits won him accolades and made me understand that there was a lot more to the food I grew up with than I once knew. With this dish, he took the humble grit and exalted it. This was a brilliant thing and way before it’s time. As it turns out, its time is now. The grit is hot. Southern food in general is extremely hot. All of our humble ingredients and techniques can be found on menus all over the world.Just last week, I was asked to give a 45-minute presentation at the International Chef’s Congress on how exactly to exalt, or in my words, “pimp” the grit. This means I will be standing before accomplished chef’s who work in grams, hydrocolloids, and tweezers, and will be schooling them on how to make grits. Do What? Grit Tips
Our basic recipe recommends milk as a cooking liquid for grits, but you could absolutely use anything you like. We have used water, chicken stock, apple cider, heavy cream, goat whey, and shrimp stock all to varying levels of success.
The modern grocery store, particularly in the South, offers many small, quality producers of grits. Your best bet is to look for one that is stone ground, lists only one ingredient, and recommends refrigeration or freezing for storage.
People tend to pair very rich ingredients like meats or cheese with grits. To keep from feeling like your grit creations are just too heavy, always include something with some acidity, like tomato, onion, apple, or roasted peppers marinated in some lemon juice.
Grits really are a blank canvas, so don’t shy away from combining a sweet element with this grain. One of our most popular grit creations at the restaurant is a Pimped Grit with stewed figs, caramelized onions, bacon, and blue cheese.
Things I like to pair with grits cheese...all kinds, caramelized onions, fried onions, bacon, country ham, sausage, tomatoes, corn, roasted peppers, mushrooms, eggs, gravy, braised beef, roasted peaches, crispy sweet potatoes, béchamel, sweet corn, sautéed apples, broccoli, collard greens, herbs like cilantro, basil, thyme, rosemary, and sage.