I don’t know whether Kathryn Stockett, author of bestseller The Help, likes to cook or not, but I suspect that we share a similar sensibility about food. I say this based on her summation of grits in her novel: ‘That’s all a grit is, a vehicle. For whatever it is you rather be eating.’ I couldn’t agree more.
Now I know that I am but a mere uprooted Italian Yankee making my way in the loveliest village on the plains, and as such, may not fully understand Southern grits. Perhaps. But I also hold a similar opinion about pasta and, being Italian, feel I possess at least some legitimacy on the subject. When I say I’m in the mood for pasta, what I really mean is that I’m up for a savory lamb or creamy carbonara sauce.
And let’s not forget our tuber friends, the potatoes. Even the most basic of tater dishes, like classic scalloped potatoes, is just a way for me to indulge in heavy cream and butter without looking like a walking heart attack. Tell me it isn’t so.
Without question we need mild, white canvas-like ‘vehicles’ like grits. They become the base on which to shower spicier, saucier, more distinctive flavors. Together they work in perfect symbiotic balance, and create an unforgettable journey of the palate in the process. Otherwise, we have just a lot of spicy or a lot of bland, and that would be no fun. It’s a yin yang kind of thing, really.
Sadly, it wasn’t until I met my husband Erik that I had my first taste of delicious grits.
After living for 10 years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and eating at Crook’s Corner more times than he can recall, he was more than well-versed in the restaurant’s signature dish of Shrimp and Cheese Grits. His love for the dish propelled him to begin preparing it as part of his family’s Christmas Eve dinner festivities. By the time I met him, the tradition was deeply entrenched and, after one taste of the heavenly creation, I happily hopped on the hominy bandwagon.
Prior to that, my only exposure to this beloved Southern staple – perhaps predictably given that I was growing up in the U.S. with parents who treated their home like sovereign Italian territory – came from television. More specifically, out of the mouth of a down-to-earth and cheeky waitress named Flo in the popular 70s television show Alice. Many of you may recall her memorable and low-brow way of silencing a surly customer or, more frequently, her grumpy boss Mel. With phrasing befitting any greasy spoon waitress, she would quip: ‘kiss my grits!”
While I figured out ‘grits’ was a metaphor for something far less television-friendly, I didn’t have a blazing clue as to what it was. (In my defense, let’s also not forget I couldn’t just turn to my computer and Google it in 1979.) Living in the Northeast suburbs as I was, where Wonder Bread and parboiled rice ruled, I had no one around to enlighten me. ‘Grits’ remained a sort of abstract idea pulled out of pop culture for years. Until, that is, I took my first bite and thought, after some initial hmmm…ing, ‘why…this is the South’s version of pasta!’
Since then I’ve enjoyed grits in a myriad of ways, though my absolute favorite involves turning it into light and crispy waffles, and then pairing them with whatever else I feel like eating.
making jalapeño & grits waffles
To make them, melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a very small bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Remove the inside flesh and seeds from 1/2 of a chopped jalapeño chili pepper.
Preheat the waffle iron to medium heat.
To a medium-sized bowl add 2 ¼ cups of completely cooled slow-cooked grits, 1 ¼ cups (4-oz.) shredded sharp Monterey Jack cheese, 2 large eggs, 1 cup of chickpea (or white unbleached) flour, the prepped jalapeño, and salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste.
You can use more of jalapeño if you desire additional heat, but I’ve got little ones in my house and I don’t want them going to bed hungry. 😉
Brush the hot waffle iron with the melted butter.
Drop about 2/3 cup of grits mixture smack in the center.
Press down and cook for 3-4 minutes or so. In my case, my waffle iron sounds off when the waffle is done cooking, but I cooked it for an additional minute or so because I wanted them to be more golden in color. Like this:
Repeat with the remaining grits mixture. Makes 7-8 waffles, depending on size.