Photo by Ned Raggett/FlickrCC
To try a traditional Southern meal, click here for Regina's savory grits and here for shrimp and andouille Creole to top them with.
When it comes to ingredients that inspire me, I have always had a love affair with any food that is truly American—and if it is Southern, it is even better. Yet with that said, it is no surprise that of all the things I cook I always feel more of a connection with the foods of my Southern upbringing.
If you asked people to come up with one food that is absolutely Southern, I would guess that "grits" would be in the top five. I have always said you have to be born below the Mason-Dixon Line to truly understand grits. Polenta is accepted on both coasts, but grits have a lifetime of being underappreciated in places other than the South.
However, I never give up on converting people, and I have done my share. Although grits are a breakfast staple in the Southern states, they can be dressed up for the most elegant of dinner parties.
Like many things in life, people tend to overcomplicate grits, but not Miss Mary.
What are grits? They are made from hominy, dried kernels of corn, after the hull and germ have been removed. Then the kernels are ground—fine, medium, or coarse. From a gourmet's view, stone-ground are the better-tasting grits, but from a practical view quick grits (fine ground grits that have been pre-steamed) are easier to prepare, especially for someone who has not spent a lot of time cooking grits.
When I decided to write about grits, I knew I was going to visit Miss Mary. When I think of breakfast grits, I think of Miss Mary at Monmouth Plantation here in Natchez. Monmouth is a highly rated four-diamond property, a National Trust Historic Hotel that Condé Nast Traveler regularly ranks among the country's top small luxury hotels. At Monmouth, guests dine in the main mansion, where Chef Scott Varnado prepares exquisite food. Breakfast is served each morning in the charming garden room, and Miss Mary has been at the helm for 23 years.
Photo by Ned Raggett/FlickrCC
Miss Mary prepares a buffet of fresh fruit, baked goods, and even her homemade granola with cranberries and pecans. There is enough variety to make anyone feel at home. Her fluffy cathead biscuits seem to be the memory everyone walks away with, and from experience, I know her grits are perfection. I use to see Miss Mary a lot more. When I returned to Natchez, I made a six-month commitment to consult at Monmouth and the time turned into three years. It was a very enjoyable place to work, and I would visit Miss Mary at least five mornings a week. Although now we don't see each other as often, when I walk into her kitchen we pick up where we left off.
We have always talked about food and family, but this morning I had a mission. I just wanted to hear what she had to say about grits. Like many things in life, people tend to overcomplicate grits, but not Miss Mary. She said she cooks grits the way her parents taught her: she just gauges the water and brings it to a boil, adds a little salt, then stirs in her grits. She uses a wire whisk and stirs them frequently. She said the more you cook them the thicker they get. If they are too thick, slowly add a little more water; if they are too thin, she said, continue to cook them. Butter is a key ingredient. Stirring is another important factor.
In Natchez, you won't find grits just for breakfast. I remember when cheese grits became popular around here in the early sixties: my father prepared some for the New Years Eve party at Liberty Hall. I remember just loving them the minute I tasted them, and I have never forgotten that moment. They have been a brunch and lunch staple around here since that time.
Now me ... Unlike Miss Mary, I will overcomplicate if given the chance. I too use a wire whisk, and I agree with everything Miss Mary says, but when I make savory grits for dinner I add cream, cream cheese, garlic, and rosemary. I added just about anything flavorful you can imagine, from chipotle peppers to smoked tomatoes. Grits are a versatile starch and can take on anything you want to add to them. There is not a cheese that does not fit with grits or a meat or seafood.
I say go crazy—you can't go wrong so long as the grits are fully cooked. The one thing I forgot to mention about Miss Mary is she has confidence and patience in the kitchen.