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Basic Grits/ Basic Grits Cakes/ Creamed Peas With Pearl Onions and Mint

April 1995

John Martin Taylor runs one of the few complete culinary bookstores in the country--Hoppin' John's, a landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. I first encountered him there, and learned a great deal about Southern food, not to mention the other books from the rest of the world I needed to read, in a matter of a few hours.

Taylor's first book, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain (Bantam, 1992), provided me with one of my favorite dishes, a pilau, or pilaf, of rice with shrimp and bacon. In his The New Southern Cook: Two Hundred Recipes From the South's Best Chefs and Home Cooks, which Bantam will publish in June, Taylor gives a recipe for his namesake dish, the rice-and-beans stew that is a building block for any Southern cook, and recipes collected from cooks all over the region.

These aren't all traditional, the way the recipes in the first book are; they don't all have carefully researched, long histories. But many of the recipes have the kind of natural simplicity that always characterizes the best cooking. I'm particularly drawn to a dish with fresh peas, which are one of the reasons spring is worth waiting for. You could also substitute my favorite vegetable--fava beans, also called broad beans, which look like tiny lima beans, take a long time to shell from their thick green jackets lined with white fur, and taste sweeter and better than any lima bean ever thought to.

    -- Corby Kummer


From The New Southern Cook, by John Martin Taylor. Bantam, 1995. Hardcover $27.95.

Supermarket grits are processed hominy: corn that's been treated in an alkaline solution so that the hulls and germ float to the surface. Thus bleached, the corn is dried, enriched (some of the nutrients lost in the processing are added back in) and ground--too fine, to my taste. These tasteless, ashen grits are served as a matter of course in countless restaurants and homes throughout the South. It's no wonder outsiders don't like them.

When early colonists arrived in the South, the Native Americans made hominy by soaking their corn in a solution of lye made from wood ashes. Ashen grits were made to preserve the grain through the winter and spring, when temperatures often stayed in the 70s and 80s. This processing was of course unnecessary up north.

When I went looking for great grits, I tried more than two dozen mills before I found one that could consistently provide coarse-ground, whole-grain grits (see Ingredients and Sources). I now sell tons of the best grits I've ever eaten. They taste like freshly ground corn because they are just that; when cooked, they resemble creamed fresh corn, but are starchier. They can be used just like pasta or rice. Not only local home cooks and restaurateurs, but also cooks throughout the country have added real grits to their menus, so that old southern favorites like Lowcountry shrimp and grits have reentered the culinary vernacular as if they had never been missing.

Some people cook their grits for a long, long time. It's true that the longer they cook, the creamier they become. You can put them in a slow cooker overnight, and they'll be delicious. But you can easily cook grits in less than 30 minutes if you're willing to watch the pot and stir occasionally. Cooked grits can then be enriched with egg, poured into a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or greased baking pan, and refrigerated. The chilled grits are then unmolded, cut into portions, dusted with flour or cornmeal, and pan-fried like polenta.

Basic recipes for grits and grits cakes follow. There's also an innovative variation on grits cakes from chef Frank Stitt. Be sure to see Fran Freeberg's version of shrimp and grits and Rob Ennis's sauteed oysters over grits cakes in Chapter 2 and the recipe for garlic cheese grits in Chapter 5 as well.


Grits invite a host of accompaniments. Any sauce or gravy that you would put on pasta or rice is ideal. If you plan to serve the grits plain, a little stock made from trimmings from the main course is a welcome addition if stirred in near the end of the cooking.

1 quart water

2 tablespoons butter

salt to taste

1 cup stone-ground whole-grain grits

Bring the water, butter, and salt to a boil in a stockpot. Gradually add the grits, return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the grits, stirring occasionally so that that they do not stick or form a skin, until creamy and done to your liking, about 25 minutes. Many people like to cook them much longer; if you do, you may have to add more water.

When the grits are almost done, you can turn the pan down to its lowest setting and cover it while you prepare the rest of the meal.


1 recipe basic grits

2 eggs

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 teaspoons water

1/4 Cup unbleached all-purpose flour, cornmeal, corn flour (see Ingredients and Sources), or fine dry bread crumbs

peanut oil for frying

As soon as the grits are done, put one of the eggs into a medium mixing bowl with the cream and stir well to combine. Quickly add some grits to the egg and cream, beating well with a wire whisk so that the egg doesn't curdle. Dump the mixture into the grits pot and whisk all together well.

Turn the grits out into a greased 9-inch cake pan and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until firm.

When you're ready to cook, heat some oil in a heavy pan over medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to its lowest setting. Place a rack over a sheet pan and place it in the oven along with 4 appetizer plates or 2 dinner plates.

Remove the grits from the refrigerator and turn them out onto a cutting surface. Beat the remaining egg with the water in a pasta bowl to make a wash. Cut the grits into 8 wedges, then gently lift each one up and dip it in the egg wash, then in the meal. Saute or deep-fry until golden brown, then transfer to the rack in the oven to drain and stay warm while you prepare the sauce.

Serves 8


Fresh green peas are a sure sign that spring has arrived. Delicious with potatoes, mushrooms, or onions, they can accompany any simple roast meat, fowl, or fish. Nearly all the good recipes for English peas have been around for centuries, though today's varieties will cook in less time.

When fresh peas arrive at the market, I can't resist pairing them with pearl onions and cream. The addition of mint, found in nearly every southern yard, is classic; Elizabethan and Jacobean cooks invariably included it.

Freshly shelled peas fade rapidly. If you can't cook them immediately, it's better to use frozen peas.

10 ounces pearl onions

2 cups freshly shelled or frozen green peas, about 2 pounds in the shell

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely cut mint leaves, plus a few leaves for garnish

Drop the whole onions into boiling water for 3 minutes, then transfer them with a slotted spoon to a colander. Rinse them well under cold water, slice off the base of each onion, and pop it out of its skin. Set aside.

Rinse the peas well and remove any that show any sprouts or bruises. Put them and the sugar in the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes depending on the size and age of the peas. Drain in a colander.

Put the cream, salt, and mint in a pan with the peeled onions. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute. Add the peas to heat through. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

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    Copyright © 1995 by Corby Kummer. All rights reserved. Recipes copyright © 1995 by John Martin Taylor. All rights reserved.
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