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The Food Lab Rapido: Cheesy Grits with Spring Vegetables

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last year my good friend BraveTart sent me a bag of grits from Weisenberger Mill, just down the road from her place in Lexington, Kentucky. Growing up in New York and Boston, grits were never exactly a thing in my household. I don't think my mom even made polenta, let alone true Southern-style grits. My only exposure to them was at family reunions where my more southern-inflected cousins and aunts would cook up trays of cheesy grits with Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage cooked right in. That was some fine breakfasting there.

But dammmmn if I haven't developed a taste for them since then. Even instant grits can be alright provided you add enough butter and cheese to them to lend them some flavor (the same can be said for instant mashed potatoes). But if you want the real deal, you need to start with coarse-ground corn meal and cook it the old fashioned way. Low, low heat, with plenty of attention to stirring.

The thing with grits is that they'll clump up on you faster than you can say "Where'd I leave the butter?", and once clumped, it's nearly impossible to unclump them. The best grits—the ones that have been stirred constantly from beginning to end—should be rich, tender, and creamy, but not gluey or stodgy.

Some folks like to cook their grits in plain old water, but I prefer the creamier, richer consistency you get when you cook them with a combination of milk and water. This, of course, is enhanced by the copious amounts of cheese and butter I stir into it at the end. Any nice cheese will do, but I use a combination of super sharp cheddar (I like the clothbound stuff made by Cabot in Vermont), along with some parmesan for a bit of extra funkiness.

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Like polenta, grits practically beg to be topped with a saucy accompaniment, something that'll ooze extra flavor into it. This is exceedingly easy to do in the spring, when sweet, tender green vegetables are at their finest. I use a mix of asparagus, fava beans, English peas, and snap peas. The best way to cook them is to blanch them in salted boiling water first, then to finish them off by glazing them with butter and herbs in a pan. This two stage process helps preserve their sweet flavor and crunch, while adding some extra flavor from the herbs, carried by the buttery glaze. A touch of lemon zest and juice adds bright freshness.

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If you can get your hands on some good dried or fresh wild mushrooms, they also make a great addition to the grits. I used morels picked by a buddy of mine out in Michigan. He dries them and sends them to me. I reconstistute them in water and use them throughout the year. Because of their thinness and irregular shape, dried morels hold up remarkably well (better than most dried mushrooms).

A poached egg tops the thing off, adding its rich golden yolk to enhance the saucy vegetables.

What's that? You hate poaching eggs? We got you covered. With this technique, your eggs will come out perfectly every time.

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Cheesy Grits with Spring Vegetables »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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