Photo by Ryan Stiner
The "basic" grits and bits waffle has long been one of the most popular items on the Roadhouse brunch menu, and has been made in Low Country (that's Georgia and South Carolina) kitchens for centuries now.
The story behind it is that the Dutch brought waffle irons here with them, and that as they moved down the coast from Manhattan they began to blend the local leftover grits so common in the South into their waffles to make a new breakfast out of the previous day's leftovers.
The addition of the bacon isn't all that surprising, since cured smoked pork belly (that's a long way of saying "bacon" without having to repeat the same word in a single sentence) is in pretty much every traditional Southern dish. So it was a natural addition to the cause.
We serve the dish here with Michigan maple syrup, but down there it's likely have been cane sugar syrup or sorghum (you can have either of those instead of the maple if you like). Anyways, people love this dish, and many regulars come in weekly to have it. But what's getting me writing about it here is the recent insight of Alex Young (head chef and managing partner of Zingerman's Roadhouse) to make this same waffle dish but use Carolina Gold rice flour for the batter instead of wheat. I think it's a pretty brilliant idea. Three reasons I'm excited about it.
Plantation homes forged their family crest into the irons, giving the waffles a personalized touch when they went to the table.
First off I'm happy that it allows us to offer another really great, full flavored, traditional wheat and gluten free alternative to our rather large number of guests who have those dietary restrictions. It's a big obstacle to enjoying good eating as freely as one could without the need to get away from glutens, but given good work on the part of everyone involved -- including us as food preparers and sellers -- we can make some pretty tasty dishes that stand on their own as desirable options for all. This is one of those -- I'd want to eat it whether I was going gluten free or on a gluten-ful diet.
Secondly, I love the rice waffles because they're one more way of bringing antique tastes and textures alive in our modern era, which is so often dominated by the mass market. If you're not familiar with Carolina Gold rice -- in either its whole grain or floured forms -- I'll give you the three sentence synopsis here and refer you to the Roadhouse website for more about fifteen pages on the subject. It's not just some modern brand name with little meaning and a nice label; it's incredibly tasty stuff. It's the old rice varietal of the most rice-fixated state in the Union. It was known all over the culinary world back in the 19th century but was completely out of production for most all of the 20th.
What we're getting here is grown and milled by Glenn Roberts (Bon Appetit magazine's Artisan of the Year in 2008) -- it's organically grown, field-ripened, cold-milled, and the natural germ is still in it. Cooked up it's hard to believe how good it is.
I've got a recipe for Carolina Red Rice (with tomato and bacon) in Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon, which comes out in May. But this dish uses the rice in the form of flour -- all of the good stuff I've just mentioned cold milled into a silkily textured rice flour that tastes...amazingly good.
The rice is so remarkably good that it's hard to really convey its quality here on the printed page without sounding like I'm just going on unnecessarily and inappropriately so. I mean, it's a normal thought to challenge anyone who tells you that a straight white rice could be that good. But lo and behold I think this one really is. And if you're doubting my understandably biased word on it, I'll just tell you that I hear the same thing from most every food lover who gets to eat some of it. Any way you eat it, it's excellent. In the waffles it brings a creamy soft deep complex flavor that you'd probably never realize was the rice, unless you made this same exact dish with another rice. Which I have, but you don't need to unless you're lacking for something to do on a Sunday morning.
Interestingly, the idea of rice waffles that Alex arrived at isn't actually new at all -- it dates back hundreds of years to the Colonial era. Turns out that there's a long-standing tradition of hand held waffle irons -- they were held over the open hearth for the batter to cook. In fact, most of the bigger plantations or well-off homes had custom designed irons into which their family crest was forged, giving the waffles a bit of a personalized touch when they went to the table.
The waffle tradition likely emanated from the expertise of the Dutch engineers who did a lot in the area to enhance the development of the canals and dykes that facilitated rice farming. Given the uncanny ability of Glenn, from Anson Mills, to access historically interesting asterisks and bring them back to life, I wasn't actually all that shocked (though it did make me smile a lot), to discover that he had firsthand experience with this stuff: "I've actually cooked waffles with an early 19th century family waffle iron in the hearth at Middleburg House (one of the oldest maintained homes in the South, circa 1690) on the Cooper River just North of Charleston." And rice, being the low-country staple it was, was commonly used in floured form in waffles, breads, muffins and quick breads of all sorts
Finally, and probably foremost, I'm excited because the Rice Flour Grits and Bits Waffles taste really fantastic. Alex's idea would make this dish good with any rice flour, but of course it tastes so exceptionally excellent because it's made with one of Carolina Gold Rice flour from Anson Mills down in South Carolina.
Regardless of any dietary restrictions, the grits and bits rice waffles are really a pretty wonderful way to start your day -- a couple of rice flour waffles blended with some of Anson Mills creamy, full-flavored white corn organic grits, all laced with bits of applewood smoked bacon and served with plenty of Michigan butter and maple syrup (Or try it with the organic sorghum syrup we get from Missouri, which is also fantastic!). And if you're feeling the need, feel free to order extra bacon on the side.