Monday, May 13, 2013

Kiss My Grits

Grits are the quintessential Southern staple and as Southern culture is increasingly eroded by waves of Northern migration it has become as much maligned as misunderstood.

Let's fix that.

Grits are more than just a bowl of polenta that didn't make the cut. Much more, as this dish demonstrates.

Black Eyed Mule

Mise en place (for two servings)

High quality grits, about 2-3 ounces per serving
Parmesan Reggiano, coarsely grated
Fresh bacon, one strip per serving
Fresh eggs, one per serving
Fresh parsley
Freshly ground pepper (in the making)
Most grist mills recommend a five to one water to grits ratio but the proper way to cook grits is al dente so go a bit light on the water. The grits should be brought to a boil then dropped to a simmer and stirred as needed to prevent burning and maintain consistency. As plating time arrives should it be determined the grits are too thick there is no harm in adding a small amount of water to achieve the proper consistency.

Put the bacon in a cast iron frying pan on a slow to medium flame as the grits begin heating.  Fresh bacon has a higher moisture content than cured bacons and should be cooked at a low to moderate temp to avoid burning while achieving a crisp finish. If you don't have a cast iron frying pan, get one. This is the South, we even sell these things in hardware stores.

Once the bacon is crisp remove and place on paper towels to drain. Crumble when drained. Pour off any excess grease then scrape the sticky bits of bacon (fond) loose but do not discard as this only adds to the magic of good eggs.

Keeping the heat low to moderate crack two eggs into the frying pan. You want properly cooked "sunny side up" eggs--well cooked white and a runny yolk--but err to the side of undercooked. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat as this results in a crispy bottom crust--what we call "burned". If you're in a hurry cook covered, it won't really cook any faster but you can't see it so you won't know it and you'll be left to stir the grits which will keep you occupied.

Once the eggs are cooked the grits are done and should not be runny but should not be so thick that they do not readily close behind a spoon pulled thru the pot. If too thick thin with a cautiously small amount of water and give it a minute to heat.

Split the grits between two bowls, reserving a small portion for the demon dawg lest an unholy stench lead authorities to your half-eaten rotting corpse. What they will mistake as "man's best friend" loyally defending his fallen master will in fact be a demonic hell-hound protecting his next meal. Play it safe and set something aside.

Add equal shares cheese, reserving the obligatory canine portion.

Again, with the bacon. Again with the dawg.

Place an egg atop each bowl of grits, and grind pepper on the yolk but only the yolk--the black eye.

Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.

Ingredients and Variations

Now that you've done it once it is time to speak of ingredients, options and various combinations.

We all know that top notch ingredients can make a good cook look like a great chef and that it is nigh on impossible to broach this topic without also discussing provenance. The all natural, organic, artisanal, farm to table, locavore movement is in full bloom but sadly has been co-opted by marketing groups who have begun to dilute the movement's value in pursuit of money. This cannot be stopped but we have no intention of helping them along. 

So let's take the ingredients one at a time, starting with the parsley. Grow your own--it's just that simple. You must have a thumb coated in toxic waste to find yourself unable to grow parsley either indoors, outdoors or on the patio. In this climate it will overwinter so there really is no excuse for not using fresh off the stalk parsley in this dish.

Unless you substitute cilantro for the parsley. Again to be used if and only if it is truly fresh--as in you grew it and harvested it within minutes of using it. You should also be aware that cilantro is controversial. Folks seem to love it or hate it with few in between, but if you and yours love it, it is a fine variation so long as you avoid the natural urge to over do it. Moderation please.

There is greater flexibility in cheeses, though stringy cheeses should be avoided if for no other reason that they make eating a fine mess and other equally flavorful options are available. Popular choices range from hard, grating cheeses like parmesan reggiano offering a bit of seasoning and depending on quality a bit of a nutty flavour to a milder feta that adds a creamy texture with a mild taste that is often preferred as a backdrop to cilantro. Goat cheese has been tried but it adds a creamy texture and not much flavour.

Ah, the bacon. Indeed, pork fat rules. Dunwoody is actually blessed with a few excellent sources of bacon, notably The Fresh Market and Whole Foods both providing thick cut, minimally processed product. Minimally, but not fresh, raw bacon, and it is best to avoid the maple cured product in favor of smoke cured. Apple wood cured bacon in proper combination with parsley/cilantro and cheese selection has potential to hit the sweet spot for a broad audience. Even still fresh raw bacon is preferred but sadly for us here in the Wold the nearest, best retail source is the MSTC Meat Sale at UGA in Athens, Ga. As mentioned earlier fresh bacon like any other fresh meat contains more moisture than its more processed brethren. With adequate time, perhaps only a day, two at most the moisture issue can be addressed by "dry curing" in your refrigerator: pat the bacon strips dry, leave uncovered on a plate in the fridge, turning once or twice. If you prefer a saltier bacon you can also dry brine by salting both sides and leaving uncovered in the fridge for about two hours and of course you can combine the techniques.

Eggs, a touchy subject here in the Wold, must be fresh and honestly should be yard raised, perhaps not backyard, certainly not YOUR backyard, but factory eggs kinda taste like they were manufactured. Because they were. But necessity is a mother and you are likely going to have to make the best of a bad situation. Eggland's Best is often a notch above generic house branded product in flavour and freshness excepting The Fresh Market brand which are often the top option available locally. As the eggs are second only to the grits for the enjoyment of this dish it is really worth your trouble to find the best source of the highest quality eggs you possibly can. Egg aficionados, like John Besh, claim they can identify the individual chicken who laid any given egg from their farm. Few dare dispute that claim. Nonetheless the flavour and creaminess of the yolk adds much to this dish. There are some options at local farmers markets, but again the best and closest known at this time is the Athens Eastside Fresh Market with a vendor offering farm fresh options including quail (amuse bouche anyone?) and goose eggs (preferred by bakers) in addition to chicken eggs. No matter, get the best you can.

And finally, what this is all about--grits. If you're looking at a package that is lookin' back at you thru the eyes of an old white man wearin' a funny hat who looks more like Ben Franklin than Jeff Foxworthy, well then, them ain't grits. If you see the work "quick" or "instant" that is a directive. Put it down, quick if not instant-ly. If the package includes the word "hominy" run. Just git the hell out of there. If it really is hominy that's fine but it ain't grits and don't let nobody tell you it is. If it says "hominy grits" gawd only knows what it really is, ain't grits.

But we ARE in the South and as any South Calinky will tell you grits were born then literally and figuratively raised in South Carolina. To this day two of the best suppliers of grits are located just to our east. Both supply yellow and white varieties of extremely high quality and flavour but with some differentiation.

First a bit about the color controversy. Some consider yellow the field corn best suited for animal feed and prefer only white. In Africa yellow corn is held in great disdain as it is yellow corn that is thrown from the back of NGO trucks to "feed the poor Africans". We have found high quality suppliers with more than acceptable white and yellow varieties virtually indistinguishable in flavour and that said we prefer yellow corn for this dish from a presentation perspective. Regardless, taste will not suffer.

The first Calinky option is Carolina Rice Plantation. Their product is sometimes found locally but it is best purchased online as this will reduce the time from mill to meal. True to their name they also supply fine rice products but that is a topic for another time. They supply their grits in handy, reusable two pound canvas bags. Quantity purchase is recommended and grits can be frozen in the original packaging but should be thawed in the fridge to avoid condensation and potential mold. This is a fresh product preserved solely by drying and must remain dry to have any hope of shelf life but may also be cooked directly from the freezer. These grits cook well to al dente with a pronounced corn flavour and minimal sweetness. These have been the go-to grits for the past few years.

Next up is Anson Mills which produces field ripened, cold milled grits from organically grown antebellum heirloom stock and also provide a line of artisanal rice. That should make any new age foodie's Birkenstocks fit just a little bit better. They produce flavourful grits, packaged ready and recommended for freezing arriving in a single bag-in-a-box that is a bit inconvenient for sharing and we should all share, OK?  These also cook well though it takes just a bit longer to bring to a boil as these are kept frozen 'til cooked. They have what many consider a better flavour than Carolina Rice and when cooked al dente produce a slightly creamy broth offering a mouth feel preferred by some. Anson Mills grits are a bit less convenient than Carolina Rice but carry a quality and taste that makes them a fine choice for special occasions.

A discussion of grits suppliers cannot be complete without mentioning a local source, Mills Farm with their signature product Red Mule Grits. While this is a fine product and plays into the name of this dish, it is yet to actually appear in the starring role. It has been sampled at Athens area restaurants, notably NONA, but these were cooked as one would expect in a restaurant--too long resulting in a mushy mouthfeel and muddied flavours. Clearly these grits have potential and we look forward to incorporating them into our cuisine.

It would appear that if you want a varied supply of the best ingredients for this dish you might consider a Friday daytrip to the Classic City. It would be a day well spent.