Tuesday, June 21, 2005

sweet grits: less than perfect, perfectly delicious

Last night, my night off, I recreated a recipe. I had been eyeing this concoction all week in the restaurant. A warm, sweet grits, sprinkled with grainy turbindo sugar and torched into bruleed perfection. Sporadically through the work nights, my nostrils were assaulted by the sweet scent of burnt sugar. My fingers screamed with the intense desire to grab a spoon, crack the delicate top, and dig into its soft interior. The dollop of cardamom strawberry compote, the top of cool homemade white chocolate ice cream called to me.

My own version was not the visual stunner that I had intended to create. Instead of an edgy, driving Chef breathing down my back and the pressure of hungry diners, paying an arm and a leg, waiting ravenously - the usual conditions for the pastry chefs at work - I sang along to my Death Cab For Cuties CD, brandished my mini brulee torch slash microphone with ungainly finesse, and snuck many spoonfuls of ice cream (all flavors of Ben and Jerry's living in the freezer had to be tested for maximum flavor matching), not to mention the ones that just weren't quite 'perfect' enough to plate. But I gave it my all. Despite the somewhat burnt tops and a leaky strawberry sauce, there were no complaints around the dinner table that night. The grits were delicately sweet, creamy and infused with a wonderful cardamom scent. The strawberries gave a bit with a hint of liqueur and lime, contrasting in texture and taste to the cold vanilla ice cream. In fact, all proof of our sweet feast was consumed faster than I could even remember to capture it on film. Perfection, on one's night off, often takes to the back burner in the face of friends and fun.

Warm Sweet Grits
adapted from Food and Wine Magazine, July 2005

2 c. milk
6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/2 c. plus 2 tbs sugar
1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
a splash of creme de cassis
large slices of lime zest from one lime
3 tbs. unsalted butter
1 c. stone-ground white grits
4 c. warm water
1/4 c. grainy turbindo sugar
copious amounts of ice cream (vanilla, preferably)

- In a small saucepan, combine milk, 4 cardamom pods, vanilla bean and seeds, cinnamon, and 1/4 c. plus 2 tbs sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Then let stand off heat 45 minutes to marry the flavors. Strain the infused milk to discard the solids.

- Meanwhile in another saucepan, combine strawberries, liqueur, lime zest, and remaining 1/4 c sugar and 2 cardamom pods. Let stand 10 minutes. Then cook over high heat for a few minutes, until the strawberries are soft. Let cool. Discard lime zest and cardamom pods.

- Melt butter in large saucepan, add grits and stir over high heat for five minutes. Gradually add the warm water; reduce the head to moderately low and cook, stirring often, until the water is absorbed, around 20 minutes. Whisk in the milk and stir until smooth. Cook, stirring frequently, until grits are thickened, 30 minutes more. Let them cool a bit

- Then to plate: a generous dollop of grits in the center of the plate or bowl. Sprinkle the top with the brown sugar, evenly for a uniform crust and to prevent burning - use a propane torch to caramelize the sugar. (Although I suppose you could preheat the broiler, top the grits with brown sugar in a larger baking pan, and broil them for a minute or so to caramelize the sugar before creating individual servings). Top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and spoon the strawberry compote on the side.

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