I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never really cared for the typical Southern version of cheese grits. The grits are tasteless, the cheese is lumpy, and the eggs dry everything out. When the casserole cools down, you have to cut a cube out of the solid yellow mass and smash it down with the back of your spoon. That’s about as unappetizing as it gets. My version makes a rich and creamy dish that actually tastes like cheesy grits instead of a corn-based custard.
This recipe is based on a dish in the Soby’s New South Cookbook. Here’s everything you need.
Rich & Creamy Cheese Grits
- 1 1/4 cup white, stone-ground grits
- 2 1/2 cups low sodium chicken stock
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups extra sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
- 1 cup heavy cream (or half and half)
- 1/3 pound bacon, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-2 tablespoons butter, as needed
- salt & pepper to taste
Bring the Chicken stock, water, salt and pepper to boil in a pot. Take the pot off the heat and slowly whisk in the grits so they don’t lump.
Return the pot to the heat and set it to low. Simmer for about 20 minutes (according to the package instructions), stirring occasionally to make sure the grits don’t burn. While the grits are cooking, chop the peppers and mince the shallot and garlic.
Next, chop the bacon into small rectangles and cook over medium-high heat until all the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and pour off all but two tablespoons of the bacon grease. (I like to sprinkle a little brown sugar on the bacon pieces while they’re still hot, but that’s not really part of the recipe)
Return the pan to the heat. Add the chopped peppers to the pan along with a tablespoon of butter and a pinch of salt. Cook for about 6-8 minutes until they’ve softened. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for another 3-5 minutes until the garlic is starting to brown.
If you let things stick to the bottom of the pan, deglaze it with a little white wine and cook off the excess. Pour the medley into a large, shallow baking dish.
As I’ve said over and over again, you really should grate your own cheese if you have the time. The pre-shredded stuff they sell at the grocery store just doesn’t melt and incorporate the same as freshly grated cheese. I don’t know the science at work, I just know that’s how it is. So shred two cups of extra sharp white cheddar.
By this time, the grits should be about done. Off the heat, add 1½ cups of the cheese to the grits and stir well until there are no visible lumps. Next, add the cream and incorporate.
Finally, pour the grits mixture into the baking dish with the pepper medley and stir well. When it’s nicely mixed, season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Top with the remaining cheese and bacon pieces.
It’s not really necessary to bake this dish, but I always seem to warm it in the oven until it’s time to eat. It comes out great every time.
NOTES: When cooking grits like this, it’s better to err on the side of too much salt in the boiling water/stock mixture. You can always diminish the saltiness with extra cream and cheese, but it takes a lot of extra salt to add flavor to the finished dish.
Although I used bacon in the recipe above, I usually make this dish with a cup or two of cubed ham steak. I chop and fry it in a little olive oil and butter until it caramelizes. As soon as it’s finished cooking, I pour half of the ham into the casserole dish and incorporate it with everything else. Next, I add a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoon of brown sugar to the pan and stir so that all the remaining ham pieces are coated evenly with sweet caramel. I use those pieces as the topping.
If you want to use this recipe as a base for shrimp and grits, you just need to cut the cheese down to 3/4 cup and incorporate it all with the grits. Next, cook a pound of shrimp in the bacon grease with a tablespoon or so of Cajun seasoning (I usually mix equal parts Old Bay and Tony Chachere’s). When they’re just opaque, add a tablespoon or two of butter to the pan and a quarter cup of heavy cream. Stir well and pour the mixture over the grits. The shrimp will finish cooking in the residual heat of the casserole. Top with the bacon and some chopped, fresh sage.