April 16, 2013

Tasty grits find their place in Sacramento dining

When it comes to grits, Sacramento is a world away from the Deep South, where this creamy, corn-based comfort food is as common as barbecued brisket and butter on biscuits.

When it comes to grits, Sacramento is a world away from the Deep South, where this creamy, corn-based comfort food is as common as barbecued brisket and butter on biscuits.

Still, grits are finding their way onto more restaurant menus in these parts. Sometimes they're called polenta. Sometimes they're called grits.

Either way, once foodies give them a taste, they're apt to start, ahem, grinnin' like a possum eatin' a sweet tater.

This blue-collar Southern staple is not only delicious and soothing, around here it tends to inspire a certain exotic-meets-artisan cachet.

We're not just doing any ol' grits. In some ways, the grits in Northern California are fresher, richer, creamier and tastier than what you'll commonly find south of the Mason-Dixon. Whether made from hominy corn or standard hard corn, the foundation of grits is cornmeal ground anywhere from coarse to fine and then cooked quickly with water or milk.

Artisan grits? You guessed it. Thanks to small specialty farms, the hard corn that's grown locally for cornmeal is getting rave reviews for its flavor and texture.

You can find grits made from heirloom corn at Magpie Café, where owner-chef Ed Roehr created one recent breakfast dish using eggs and grits sourced from the same organic grower – Kingbird Farms outside Galt.

"Breakfast is new for us," said Roehr, whose kitchen is among the most respected in town. "We've just been doing it since the beginning of the year. But grits suit our style. It's a Magpie thing."

In recent months in my role as restaurant critic, I've noticed grits turning up on menus at some of the most dynamic restaurants in town. Besides the smooth and mildly flavored grits at Magpie, I have tasted them at Mama Kim Eats, Hook & Ladder, Taylor's Kitchen and The Porch. They're also on the menu at Hoppy Brewing, which serves "spicy Georgia cheesy grits" with eggs. In Nevada City, Ike's Quarter Cafe is big on grits.

"We love them," said Kim Scott, co-owner of Mama Kim Eats, which offers a New South-Cajun fusion cuisine. "We get a lot of people from the South who come in specifically because of the grits."

The grits at Mama Kim's, like those at several other top restaurants in the area, come from Grass Valley Grains, where farmer Reed Hamilton grows a small selection of crops on 50 acres and then grinds the corn into fresh cornmeal.

"It wasn't a deliberate sort of thing," Hamilton said of the mini boom his grits have enjoyed. "All of my stuff is very fresh, and there has been this wave of interest."

Looking to sell his cornmeal wholesale, Hamilton contacted Jim Mills, the sales manager at Produce Express. Mills has become practically evangelical when it comes to touting the wonders of local, sustainable and heirloom crops.

"We've gone from selling 20 pounds a month to 300 pounds a month," Mills said of the grits. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but two years ago we didn't even have this product."

Mills says there is little if any difference between polenta and the California version of grits. In the South, traditional grits are made from hominy, which is corn treated with lye and dried before it is ground.

I lived in the South for more than a decade and have eaten grits of varying quality and texture. Sometimes they're bland and dry. Sometimes they're buttery and decadent and practically oozing flavor.

"The corn can yield polenta if you're in Italy and grits if you're in the South," Mills said with a chuckle. "The uptick in interest here is because of the local flour. I was able to offer restaurants a local corn flour – and that started the whole thing."

Indeed, more restaurants than ever are embracing the farm-to-table ethos, which celebrates local ingredients, often with a story about the farms, the farmers and the lineage of the produce.

The corn grown at Kingbird Farms, according to owner Mike Eaton, is an heirloom varietal of hard red corn called Floriania, which had been shipped to Italy in the 1600s and through the years was presumed lost, only to be rediscovered by the folks at Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland. Eaton obtained some seeds and planted a small plot for cornmeal.

One reason for the newfound prominence of grits is not only their freshness but how they offer a mild-tasting foundation for creative chefs to add layers of complementary flavors.

"Grits are just amazing, and they're versatile," said Ike Frazee of Ike's Quarter Cafe. "They're rich, warm, buttery and have great flavor."

At Ike's, one of the favorite options is to add something called the "debris" – a mix of five different meats. Frazee also likes to go the sweet route, adding brown sugar to the grits and eating them more like porridge or oatmeal.

At Bacon and Butter, a midtown Sacramento restaurant that boasts some of the best breakfast cooking going, owner-chef Billy Zoellin has featured polenta on his menus and is waiting for figs to come into season before he showcases his take on a grits dish.

As Zoellin sees it, his grits dish will include maple syrup, mascarpone cheese, local figs and will be finished with a balsamic reduction. And no doubt bacon and butter will work with grits, too.

The nitty-gritty of grits

Grits look and feel like porridge or cream of wheat, but they have a distinctive mild corn flavor and for generations have been a staple in the Deep South.

Grits, which can be white or yellow, are made with cornmeal – sometimes ground from hominy, sometimes from regular hard corn.

Owner-chef Ed Roehr of Magpie Café offers this tip for home cooks: As you sift the cornmeal into the water or milk, choose a direction in which to stir the whisk and stick with it. This will ensure smooth, consistent stirring and will limit the likelihood of dreaded lumpy grits.

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Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.

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