Nutty. Floral. Sweet. Earthy. Toasty. Grits might be a simple food, but its varied characteristics hint at a complexity not generally associated with the South's signature dish.
In South Carolina, we prefer the stone-ground variety made by grinding dried corn, germ and all, between rotating millstones. The result is fittingly gritty, the coarse quality somewhat reined in by a good long soaking and simmering. (Millers of small-batch grits typically recommend an overnight soak to reduce cooking time and, thereby, retain more corn taste.) Grits flavor profiles are a bit nuanced, but well worth the time it takes to identify and appreciate them.
Even tried-and-true Southerners might be surprised by another quality: Grits are colorful! Hues of blue, yellow, orange, red and pink - yes, pink - are turning dinner plates into color wheels of deliciousness. Some of these varieties have been reintroduced to the culinary landscape thanks to the work of seed savers, farmers, chefs, food historians and others with an interest in heirloom crops.
If you want to make a splash with dinner guests, create a kaleidoscopic grits masterpiece bursting with corn goodness. Whether you're planning to top them with succulent South Carolina shrimp and gravy, a fresh vegetable medley, country ham and a sunny-side up egg, or a spicy mix of cheese, salsa and avocado, here are a few suggestions for creating a grits canvas that's flavorful - and lovely enough - to stand alone.
Sea Island Blue: Heirloom Sea Island blue corn infuses these grits with a deep indigo color. The flavor is nutty, yet delicate, which doesn't lend itself well to heavy cheeses, gravies and creams. Opt for a simple pat of butter and a pinch of salt instead. Fresh chopped tomato and avocado make fine companions.
Unicorn: Meet South Carolina's newest grits darling, produced by Greg Johnsman of Edisto Island's Geechie Boy Mill. Delightfully rosy, these grits are sweet, soft and pretty as a picture. They might look froufrou, but a bowl of Unicorn grits can admirably bear such substantial add-ons as collards and brisket. You can taste that dish and others at Millers All Day in Charleston, which Johnsman co-owns.
Guinea Flint: Orange corn kernels are responsible for the warm, pumpkin color of this interesting heirloom strain. Sturdy and full bodied, Guinea Flint grits has been compared to unrefined versions of Italian polenta. Professor David Shields of the University of South Carolina said this corn crossed the Atlantic twice, once in pre-Colonial days from the South to Africa, where it was tweaked by growers. When it returned to the South in the 19th century, the single-ear-per-stalk crop could produce up to eight cobs per stalk. More Guinea Flint grits for everyone!
Jimmy Red: These grits are a mix of yellow and white with distinctive red flecks of bran throughout. The flavor is nutty and the aroma lightly floral with undertones of toasted nuts. Cultivated by Native Americans and brought to South Carolina in 1910, Jimmy Red corn was once an endangered strain. The joint efforts of folks such as James Island seed saver and farmer, Ted Chewning, Anson Mills, Charleston's Chef Sean Brock, Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill and Professor David Shields of the University of South Carolina put into motion a major comeback for the heirloom grain. Listed as a culturally significant food in the Ark of Taste catalog, it wasn't long before Jimmy Red became a grits superstar. It still enjoys top billing on fine menus across the state.
Speckled: Nothing fancy here, but the eating is good. These grits are a straightforward, white and yellow mix with black flecks of germ. They cook up creamy and smooth, making them perfect for just about any dish. Go ahead and cheese these babies up or hit them with a splash of cream as they simmer. A bowl of buttered speckled grits can certainly stand on its own. They also serve as the perfect complement to a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and biscuits, or as we call it in these part, a South Carolina "good morning!"
Visit the websites of these South Carolina millers to order the grits of your dreams:
Anson Mills: wide variety of heirloom white, yellow and blue grits
Blizzard Branch: white and yellow
Carolina Plantation:stone-ground white and yellow grits
Cotton Hills Farm: white grits (Southern Fields brand)
Marsh Hen Mill: white, yellow, speckled, Sea Island Blue, Jimmy Red, Guinea Flint
Millers All Day: Guinea Flint, Unicorn and speckled grits
Palmetto Farms:white, yellow, speckled