February 9, 2012

Goat Cheese Grits with Greens and Ham

Have you ever stopped to consider - really consider - the kinds of food and customs that make up your own culinary identity? Why you grew up cooking the way you do or learning to prepare the recipes that you have? Chances are these recipes have been passed down several generations and some saintly soul (a grandmother or great-grandmother) has bothered to copy them down. Evolutionarily speaking, recipes are a form of our own individual oral histories. They reflect tricks and techniques learned over generations of sharing meals among family and friends. I sometimes like to think this way about Southern food. Where along the way did someone discover that ground corn made an energy-laden, nutritious meal? And where, I'd really like to know, did someone else discover that the addition of cheese to grits makes the world go 'round?
Recent discoveries of my family's ancestry on both my parents' sides have revealed that we have been southern for nearly 400 years. My direct ancestors came to Jamestown before 1620. Part of them were among the First Families of Virginia. One was Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia itself. Somewhere along the way, these erudite royal folk decided they were tired of the colonies (post-Revolutionary politics no doubt did them in) and moved further south in search of a more peaceful, tranquil life - making booze and selling guns in Alabama. This is the family myth that was somewhat perpetuated over the course of the 19th and 20th century generations. Well, not the booze and guns part, but the myth of the humble, self-made Southerner, the type who was most viciously affected by the ravages of the Civil War, the type who learned to fry chicken in lard and bake cornbread in cast-iron skillets.

Knowing that colonial Virginia ultimately shaped my ancestors sort of reinforces the way I feel about being a Southerner. Never mind that the folks who came to Jamestown were from some sort of royal house in Wales, or lived in a castle in Scotland. I care more about their lives in the American South - what kinds of people they were when they lived in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia. No wonder I love grits, and fried okra, and caramel cake.

And speaking of grits, do I have a concoction to share. This combination of creamy yellow Charleston grits, collard greens, and country ham is divine, in a salty, Southern comfort kind of way. The greens are mixes of thick collards and Swiss chard, wilted with smoky ham and hot pepper. And cheese grits may as well deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. Why would anyone make grits without cheese? Make these grits with sharp white cheddar, smoked gouda, or whatever cheese you prefer. Grits are not picky about cheese. They stand up to just about anything.


Goat Cheese Grits with Greens and Ham

Serves 3-4

1 tablespoon olive oil
5 ounces country ham, sliced and chopped
2 large bunches collards or Swiss chard, stalks removed and leaves torn into large pieces
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

Goat Cheese Grits
Serves 3-4

3 cups water
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup yellow stone-ground grits (Do not use that yellow "quick grits" dust. Use real, coarse, Southern stone ground meal. Mine allegedly come from Charleston.)
1 cup milk
4 ounces soft goat cheese (or any other cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a very large saucepan, heat oil on medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add ham and cook until crispy around edges. When ham is cooked, add greens. You may need to stuff them into the sides of the pan, but they will wilt quickly. Add red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Pour chicken stock over greens, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.

For the grits, bring water and salt to a boil. Add grits very gradually, in a steady stream, whisking constantly. You'll need to watch the grits as they cook, and stir frequently until grits are thick and all the water is absorbed. Some directions say this takes 20 minutes. For me it took 10. So keep watch.

When grits are thickened, add milk and salt and pepper to taste and cook for another 5 minutes, until grits are very thick and creamy. Add cheese and cook until melted.

Serve in large, shallow bowls with warm greens on top. Make sure that you get plenty of pot likker from the greens to be soaked up by those warm yellow grits. If you have a fancy fiancé, he will make a few pieces of barbecue shrimp and place them on top of each bowl as the garnish to end all garnishes. Or have plain greens and grits. If you like, sprinkle some freshly-grated Parmigiano-reggiano on top, or add warm tomatoes or mushrooms. Like last week's pasta, grits and vegetables are totally customizable.

I just kindly ask that you put cheese in your real, stone-ground yellow grits.

Dear Cheese Grits,
Thank you for making the world a better place. 
Love, Magnolia Cooks
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  1. dear magnolia cooks,

    stop making me hungry at odd hours.

    just kidding.

    but seriously.

  2. Another nice topper for a beautiful bowl of cheesy grits is a perfectly crunchy fried green tomato. And if it's a summer green tomato from the farmer's market- divine. :)

  3. So true! Fried green tomatoes are definitely on the MC summer menu!