True Grits

 

Grits SouffléLocated in Five Points South, Highlands Bar & Grill inhabits a tile-topped Spanish Revival building of stucco accentuated with stone around the door and windows. Built by the Munger family during the late 1920’s, the structure served as a tearoom during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Chef Frank Stitt chose this building to house his restaurant, which opened in 1982. The décor is a mixture of Stitt himself, a combination of Southern and French accents. The butter-colored walls, glittering mirrors, and vintage French posters add warmth to the relaxed atmosphere.

My intentions were pure. I traipsed into the bar, plopped myself on a stool and glazed over the menu. The second my eyes scanned the stone-ground grits soufflé the decision was made. In a matter of moments, the smell of butter, ham, and chanterelle mushrooms filled the air as I laid my eyes on the cloud-like grits soufflé. There, like a lone reed, stood a pale disk of grits in a pool of creamy white sauce accompanied with drowning bits of ham and chanterelles. Fresh thyme was strewn across the top of the dish and the warmth of the sauce created a lovely, almost grassy perfume.

My fork teetered into the soufflé and I soaked the morsel in the buttery sauce. After taking my first bite, I was overwhelmed by the thought that this was the best morsel that has ever crossed my lips EVER. I tried my hardest to savor the complex flavors of the dish, but, alas, my greed and appetite won me over and the dish disappeared in shear minutes. I sat back at the bar and relaxed for just one moment, one bittersweet moment. I was in pure heaven from the dish but deeply saddened that I had eaten it all. So I made one wise and gluttonous decision, I looked at the waiter and said,”un autre, s’il vous plait.” Yes, I ate two.

This is my version of the complex and knee-bending dish with an easy-to-make-at-home twist.

Recipe: Inspired by Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill and Adapted from John Currence’s Grits Soufflé featured in the November 2011 Issue of Bon Appétit

Serves 8-10

For the Grits:

1 cup of coarse stone-ground grits

1 cup of chopped bacon, cooked and drained, reserving 2 tablespoons of bacon fat

6 eggs

½ cup of heavy whipping cream

2 cups of grated cheddar

2 tablespoons of chives (optional)

Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste

Butter a 2-quart baking dish or 10 ramekins

Bring 4 cups of water to a simmer in a large saucepan. Slowly, whisk in grits. Reduce the heat to low. Continuously stir the grits for about 1 hour, while adding water to the grits as they thicken (about ¼ cup at a time.) Remove pan from heat and let cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk the eggs and cream together. Whisk the egg mixture into the grits in 3 additions. Add cheddar cheese (reserving ¼ cup for the top of the grits), chives (if using), and bacon. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper.

Transfer grits to baking dish or individual ramekins and sprinkle on remaining cheese. Cook the grits in a 350-degree oven for 50-60 minutes in the baking dish and 40 minutes for the ramekins. You want to make sure that the center of the soufflé is set and the top gets nice and brown. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Garlic Confit:

6 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons of reserved bacon fat

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed

3 sprigs of thyme leaves, plus more for garnish

1 pinch of red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon of black pepper

¼ pound of country ham, hand torn

Juice of ¼ lemon

Melt butter in a small saucepan on low heat. Add bacon fat, garlic cloves, thyme leaves, red pepper flakes and black pepper and country ham. Let the ingredients simmer for 5-10 minutes, the butter will have turned slightly brown. Take off the heat and add lemon juice. Let cool slightly.

To assemble:

If you cooked the grits in a baking dish, just serve the confit on the side and drizzle a small amount onto of the grits. If using a ramekin, invert the grits onto a small dish and spoon the confit around the grits soufflé and garnish with more thyme leaves. Enjoy!

Pasta with Red Sauce

Please don’t tell anyone, but I am in love with Italian food. I didn’t want my first love of Southern food to find out this way. But it noticed my long sighs when I would smell homemade marinara, saw my joy when making fresh pasta, and realized the look in my eyes as I would watch pizza bubbling away in the oven. But I just can’t help it, I swear. There is a certain passion Italians have that reminds me of Southerners. We love life, family and food. Italians, like Southerners pass recipes along from generation to generation, understand the importance of eating off the land and talk feverishly with their hands. But most of all, we love our family. This recipe is a staple in my home. Break out the grape juice with the kids, sing “Mambo Italiano” to the top of your lungs and enjoy a meal with your closest family and friends.

Recipe: Serves 4

2 Tbs. of olive oil

2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 pinch of red pepper flakes

1 28 oz. can of whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed

1 pinch of sugar

2 Tbs. of butter

½ cup of parmesan cheese, grated plus more for serving

½ pound of angel hair pasta, cooked

Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauté pan on medium temperature, heat olive oil. Add sliced garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for 30 seconds or just until golden. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Add sugar. Bring to slight boil and let simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off heat, add butter and cheese. Add pasta to the sauce and mix to combine. Check seasoning one last time. Serve with freshly grated parmesan.

Roasted Tomatoes

There is a special relationship between a Southerner and a tomato. I remember being in my grandma’s garden when I was a little girl. My chubby, little hand grasped for the ripe, ruby red fruit in front of my eyes. Eating a tomato right off the vine is an experience in itself. There is life in something so fresh, and I believe eating it brings life to you as well. I long for the experiences of eating a rich, juicy tomato in the winter. So I go for the next best thing, San Marzano tomatoes. I roast them at a very low temperature for hours and hours, only enriching their tomato goodness. My sister and me eat these tomatoes on the porch with bread while swinging in the Alabama sunset. We pretend to be Italian and speak in appalling accents, flailing our arms and everything. Buon Appetito!

 

Recipe: Serves 4-6: Adapted from Bon Appetit September 2008 Issue

 1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes, cut in half lengthways

1 cup of olive oil

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

¼ tsp. red pepper flakes

1 pinch of sugar

¼ tsp. dried oregano

1 garlic clove, pressed

2 Tbs. parsley, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 250o

In a shallow baking dish, add tomatoes cut face up to the dish. Add the olive oil and seasonings to the tomatoes. Put into the oven for 1 hour, flip the tomato halves over. After another hour, flip the tomatoes again. Bake the tomatoes for one more hour, 3 hours total. After the tomatoes have been baking for 3 hours, add the garlic and parsley. Mix to combine. Top the dish with foil until ready to serve.

 

Chicken Étoufée

Étoufée is not the most attractive plate ever. This dish will never win a beauty pageant. But as all dishes prepared with roux and love, the outcome is wonderful. Honestly, étoufée is most unsightly when preparing but after it has time to settle in and gain some confidence, it begins to have body and a lovely aroma commences to seep out of the pot. I frequently find myself with my face over the vessel inhaling for at least half an hour. There is something paranormal that happens as this liquid, vegetable mixture thickens and bubbles and brews. I don’t mind the dirty looks from the frequent spectators. It’s my prerogative. This dish is humbly served over rice, and if you close your eyes as you eat it, it turns into the most beautiful entity ever. No contest required, this dish wins the crown.

* This recipe is more “blonde” than most étoufées and I use chicken instead of the most traditional seafood étouffée.

 Recipe: Serves 8-10: Adapted from Commander’s Kitchen

1 Chicken, broken down, wings and backbone reserved for a stock

1 cup of flour

1 cup of vegetable oil

4 onions, chopped

4 bell peppers, 2 red and 2 green, chopped

30 (yes, 30) garlic cloves, sliced

4 jalapenos, deseeded and chopped

1 tsp. of red pepper flakes

6 cups of water

Salt, black pepper and red pepper

In a large, heavy pot heat oil on medium-high to high heat until smoking. Season chicken with seasoning and dust with a portion of the flour. Brown in the pot for about 10 minutes. Work in batches. Take chicken out of the pot and add the vegetables to the pot. Mix the vegetables into the hot oil and season. Add red pepper flakes. Put a lid on the pot and let cook for 12 minutes. Stir the vegetables, add the rest of the flour and continue stirring until combined. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has cooked out of the pot. This could take 10-20 minutes. Add the water and season again. Add the chicken to the pot. Bring the étoufée to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 25-30 minutes. The sauce should be thick and flavorful. Debone the chicken and return to the pot. Make sure to season the pot again before serving. Serve over rice.

Collard Greens

 

Collard, turnip and mustard greens are the traditional “greens” of the South.  Most Southerners have learned to love the powerful scent of collards simmering in a pot on a cold (or warm) winter day. As a child, I remember the hum of greens heavy in the air as I reached the screen door of my house.  I happily obliged to take my homework outside, as I swore the odor of the color green would distract me from my studies.  My mother’s little trick was to keep a mug of vinegar next to the stove as she cooked down the greens. The vinegar was supposed to absorb the horrifying aroma.  I am convinced that greens have aromatic superpowers that cut through walls. As I grew older, I learned that greens are bitter sweet (no pun intended). You must champion through the smell to lavish on the silky texture of greens. These little leaves of leisure have been in a bubbling hot tub with onions, garlic and pork. With the lid closed for privacy, the Dance of the Greens forced everyone to get acquainted.  The end results made me momentarily forget the smell of the color green.

Recipe: Inspired by Highlands Bar & Grill: Makes 4 servings

1 bunch of greens, triple washed and dried

1 Tbs. olive oil

3 slices of bacon, chopped

2 small onions, sliced

1 garlic clove, minced

¼ tsp. red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare a pot of boiling, salted water. Also prepare an ice bath and salt as well. Roll greens up and julienne into ½ inch strips. Boil greens for about 2 minutes; you want them to retain their vibrant green color. Toss the greens into an ice bath and squeeze all of the excess water out.

In a sauté pan, heat oil on medium heat and add bacon until all of the fat is rendered out. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add garlic and red pepper flakes to the pan. After 2 or 3 minutes add the greens to the pan. Sauté for 5 minutes longer. Take off heat and serve.