I tried grits for the first time, shortly after moving to the South, in a greasy little diner in New Orleans, that also served alligator and fried chicken and waffles, and had pictures of jazz musicians on the wall, their frames draped with mardi gras beads. They were creamy and probably cheesy, but they were mostly, memorably, very bland.
At the time, I chalked it up to one of those acquired taste things – we didn’t grow up with grits or barbecue or collards or really good biscuits (or any number of other regional Southern staples).
Growing up, the closest thing we had to corn grits was polenta, which in our house meant the firm, weirdly, almost gelatinous squares, sliced off a log – the kind you buy pre-cooked – then sautéed in tomato sauce. Luckily, this was a rare occurrence, though my brother and I would protest loudly each and every time (sorry Mom!).
It took me a while to realize that polenta and grits were at their essence the same thing; different monikers for the same coarse bits of ground corn, prepared via different methods and ingredients by both Italian and Southern cooks, respectively.
It also took a while to come around to the savory corn porridge. In Charleston and Raleigh and Savannah I found better grits, both savory and sweet, and learned to make my own creamy, flavorful polenta at home, with good stock and a generous amount of cheese stirred in during the last bit of cooking.
If you’ve never made polenta before, swirling big crumbles of creamy, dreamy goat cheese into the stuff is a great introduction. Toppings are key too. Tomato sauce is classic, with mushrooms or ragù or meatballs, but I’ve kept things simple here. Dark leafy greens quickly sautéed in garlic and good olive oil sink into the creamy polenta under a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, for pure, wintery comfort food at its finest.
A Few Cooking Tips:
Some polenta recipes call for stirring nearly the whole time, similar to risotto, but that’s a little too fussy for most nights. When the water/stock comes to a boil, stir in the corn grits, break up any lumps, and then mostly leave them alone. They will loudly sputter and gurgle away, trying to get your attention as they hungrily absorb the cooking liquid, but a stir once or twice is all that’s needed. Use a long-handled spoon for this, the splashes can burn.
I used curly kale for the greens this time, but baby spinach, Tuscan kale (above), and Swiss chard all make for fine substitutions. Simply heat the oil, sauté the garlic until golden and fragrant, and cook the greens in the garlicky oil until just wilted but still vibrant, between thirty seconds and a minute or two, depending on your green of choice.
If you prefer your polenta super creamy – as I do – divvy the mixture into bowls as soon as it’s ready, as it will begin to set up as it begins to cool. A few splashes of warm milk or broth will loosen up a stubbornly thick batch.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the cooking method here – the secret really is all in the goat cheese, that magical ingredient I could happily add to just about… anything. It adds depth and tang and umami goodness to the polenta, and gives the porridge some added creaminess, for the simplest of cozy, comforting dinners.