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Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods: True Grits

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Matt Lee and Ted Lee exhibit a Southern politeness that speaks to their background growing up in genteel Charleston, South Carolina. Ask the brothers about instant grits, though, and they pull no punches. The pair once described the supermarket variety as “cream-wheat bland, a cultural embarrassment” and recently declared that the white stuff is better suited for spackling walls than for consumption. 

The Lee brothers, who have a new cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, out on Tuesday, have built their careers as food writers thanks in part to grits. When they first moved to the northeast for college years ago, they missed the food of their childhood so much they started The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, which specializes in Southern pantry staples. In addition to boil peanuts, one of the first products they offered was stone-ground grits.

Now, more than a decade later, stone-ground grits are commonplace in many New York City restaurants, said Ted Lee, who lives in Brooklyn.

“What’s been so exciting in the last 15 years is to see mills that had been out of production — you know, stone-driven, water-powered mills — being brought back into production,” he said. “It’s similar, when I think about it, to... the coffee culture that’s grown up so much in the last 15 years with people really appreciating what kind of corn, where it’s milled, how it’s milled.”

Ted Lee added that he uses a Mexican-style hand-crank table-clamp mill and grinds grits with the same ease as he would grind fresh coffee.

Matt Lee lives in Charleston. He notes that grist mills, like Tuthill House in upstate New York, have found a second life as part of the grits resurgence. At mills like Tuthill, dried corn is subject to an age-old process of being ground between millstones. 

“Grits are simply corn,” Matt Lee said. “For the most part, it’s not that variety of corn designed for fresh eating. It’s another one, flintier, a little more like field corn.”

Traditionally, the corn is cracked and then the hull and flour are filtered out.

The flour is “ideal for your corn bread and less so for your grits,” he added. “[Then] what you’re left with is mostly the protein, sort of rice-like granules ideally the size of a large grain of sand that are softened up in milk or water to be delicious corn-flavored grits.”

(Photo: Ted Lee and Matt Lee/The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen)

As for the cooking liquid, the Lee brothers use a combination of water and whole milk, but preferences can run the spectrum from all water to all dairy.

“Usually, if you go to a restaurant, they’re boiling it up with, like, full-on heavy cream,” said Ted Lee. “They’re basically making a cheese out of it. You can add a lot of dairy product.”

While instant grits have a near-immortal shelf life, stone-ground grits maintain that oily germ, so they’re best stored in refrigerator or freezer. “Since they’re so powdery and absorptive to be sure to double bag them before you put them in there, or otherwise they’ll acquire whatever flavors are going on in your freezer,” cautioned Matt Lee.

As for how that contrasts with coffee storage, which baristas say not to put in the freezer, Matt Lee is a little less circumspect. “I guess grits connoisseurship hasn’t reached that über level just yet,” he said with a laugh. “We’re happy to have fresh grits, we’ll leave it at that.”

Below, try a recipe for Shrimp and Grits from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.

Shrimp and Grits 
from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen 

Serves: 4 

Time: 1 hour

  • 1¼ pounds headless large (21 to 25 count) shell-on shrimp
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Kosher salt
  • ¾ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 pinch of cayenne
  • 1 pound vine-ripened tomatoes, cored and quartered
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, plus more to taste
  • 4 ounces slab bacon, cut into large dice
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Charleston Hominy (recipe follows)

1. Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the shrimp in a bowl and the shells in a small saucepan. Add 2 cups of water, the bay leaf, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ teaspoon of the sugar, and the cayenne to the saucepan with the shells. With a spoon, tamp the shells down beneath the surface of the water, cover, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Uncover, turn the heat to medium low, and let the shrimp stock simmer until reduced by half, about 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, with a sharp knife, slice the shrimp in half lengthwise.

3. Put the tomatoes in a blender or food processor and add the vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and the remaining ½ teaspoon sugar. Process to a smooth purée, then strain through a fine sieve, pressing the skin and seeds to extract as much juice as possible. Discard the skin and seeds. You should have 1½ cups of tomato purée.

4. Scatter the bacon in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is alluringly browned and has rendered its fat, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small paper-towel-lined plate and cook the shrimp in the bacon fat in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan, and stirring occasionally, just until they’ve curled into corkscrews and turned pink, about 2 minutes; reserve on a plate. Squeeze half the lemon over the shrimp and sprinkle with 2 pinches of salt.

5. Strain the shrimp stock into the sauté pan, discarding the solids, and stir with a wooden spoon to pick up the tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When the stock simmers, spoon off 2 tablespoons and then whisk them into the flour with a fork in a small bowl to make a paste. Add the tomato purée and the garlic to the pan, stir to combine, and then whisk the flour paste into the sauce. Cook until the mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon.

6. Cut the heat, and fold the shrimp in just to warm through. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and red wine vinegar. Cut the remaining lemon half into 4 wedges. Serve the shrimp over hot Charleston Hominy, and garnish with the reserved bacon and the lemon wedges.

Charleston Hominy
Makes: 3 cups
Time: 45 minutes

Charlestonians of a certain age tend to call cooked grits “hominy.” This causes confusion, because hominy everyplace else means nixtamalized—hulled by soaking in a lye solution corn, which is delicious, but a different food and flavor altogether, more evocative of Chihuahua than Charleston. Whether or not you call cooked grits “hominy,” everyone seems to agree that the uncooked raw material is “grits.” After several decades of post-WWII decline, real stoneground grits (dried corn cracked in a mill and cooked with water to a silky softness) have come back in the South—and well beyond, thanks to the valiant efforts of hard-working millers, along with the crusading flavor-centrism of restaurant chefs in Charleston and beyond, who have encouraged neophytes to experience good grits. What everyone enjoys about corn grits is their mildly earthy grain flavor and their texture, which resembles sticky rice and performs the same task of grounding a plate with a bright, malleable, and still toothsome starch. “Hominy” is employed almost interchangeably with rice, and is near-essential in Charleston with savory breakfasts of fried fish, eggs, and smokehouse bacon, but also appears at lunch and dinner, especially beneath a buttery slab of fish, or with shrimp.

Charleston breakfast hominy, like Charleston Rice (page 133), is an exercise in simplicity; the dish isn’t intended to dazzle, but to be honed to a fine polish by years of intensive use—hominy grits, as some call it, is as familiar as water and salt, but rarely taken for granted.

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup stone-ground coarse grits
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Pour the milk and 2 cups of water into a 2-quart saucepan, cover, and turn the heat to medium high. When the liquid simmers, add the grits, butter, and ½ teaspoon salt, and reduce the heat to medium. Stir every couple of minutes until the grits have become fragrant, and are the consistency of thick soup, about 8 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often and ever more frequently, for about 20 minutes, by which time the bubbles will emerge infrequently as the grits have stiffened and fall lazily from the end of a spoon. Add ½ teaspoon black pepper and cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring constantly to prevent the thickened grits from scorching on the bottom of the pan (appoint someone to the stirring task if you have to step away—a scorched pot of grits is bitter and a total loss). If your grits thicken too quickly, or if they are too gritty for your taste, add water by the half cup, stirring to incorporate, and continue cooking until tender.

3. When the grits are stiff and stick well to the spoon, turn off the heat and stir. Season with salt and black pepper to taste and serve immediately.