Pimento cheese grits
A chance encounter with a side dish at a local fish fry last week inspired the combination of two Southern favorites into an unexpected treat.
The venue was St. Augustine, an inner-city Louisville church that's known throughout the region for its lavish Friday fried-fish lunches during Lent. The side dish was something called "Lenten Cheese Grits," an odd adjective to use for a dish that doesn't normally contain meat even when consumed on other religious and cultural holidays - like Kentucky Derby Day.
(Grits, as an aside for readers outside the Southern U.S., are simply ground hominy - white corn kernels with the hull and germ removed by treatment with lye - cooked as a thick porridge. Polenta is distantly related and may be substituted if you can't get or don't like grits, although you lose the characteristic hominy flavor.)
Cheese grits, a brunch fixture and Derby Week tradition in Louisville, add a simple but profound dimension to grits by the simple expedient of stirring in cheddar cheese and discreet seasoning. It's a tasty, filling treat, but there's no news here.
The cheese grits at St. Augustine, though, were <i>different</i> ... and the difference was magic. They were silken, deeply flavorful and had an elusive spicy character that was hard to pin down, until I carefully analyzed a bit and spotted small flecks of deep red flecks in the cheesy yellow grits. These grits, it seemed, were laced not with mere cheddar but with a ration of another Southern tradition, pimento cheese.
Could it be as simple as that? Careful tasting supported the hypothesis, and further experimentation at home left little doubt: Make cheese grits with pimento cheese, and enjoy the best cheese grits you ever ate. This dish is so good that it can move from the brunch table to the dinner table, as a hearty side dish or even the main course in a vegetarian feast.
I discussed pimento cheese and offered a recipe in the March 31, 2005 <I>FoodLetter</i>
, and refer you to that column if you need detailed instructions. It's really as simple as this: Grate cheddar, chop pimientos (or roasted mild red peppers), and mash them together with a fork into a rough blend with salt, pepper and a bit of cayenne to taste, using just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together.
Once you've got your pimento cheese made, you hardly need a formal recipe for the rest: Cook your grits, either instant or standard, following package directions. Or make polenta if you prefer. Stir grated cheese into the hot mass until the cheese melts, and season to taste with salt, pepper and just about any other spice your heart and tummy desire, from hot sauce to dry mustard or even such exotica as curry powder.
I recommend keeping today's dish simple and straightforward, though, especially on your first effort. This is one of those cases in which it's a gift to be simple, and you don't really need a symphony of competing flavors to make it great.
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