Polenta or grits — what is your take on it? Numerous discussions are spinning around polenta and grits, looking at the corn that is used, finesse of the grind, method of grinding and other characteristics to try and distinguish between the two. Some say there are vast differences, others say it’s too subtle to tell apart.

First of all, what are we comparing? The product before the cooking? A creamy porridge made from a similar product? Or different dishes? Consider for instance these two quotes, one from an Italian chef in northern Italy, the other from a chef in Louisiana:

In Made In Italy Food & Stories, Giorgio Locatelli writes: “During the Second world War, polenta was what everyone lived on. You grew corn to feed the animals, and to grind for polenta. The way it would typically be eaten would be with cheese and sautéed porcini that had been gathered from the woods in the mountains.”

Emeril Lagasse writes in Louisiana Real & Rustic: “Grits are ground hominy. Hominy grits, both white and yellow, are often served for breakfast, steaming hot with lots of melted butter and seasoned with salt and cayenne.” Hominy, he explains, is corn that is boiled in a weak lye solution and then hulled, washed and dried.

The differences are obvious: from the product before the cooking to the way it is eaten.

But hominy grits is not the only grits. Let’s consider stone-ground corn grits and the difference with polenta rapidly fades. Perhaps not for a polenta purist or grits guru but it does to me. The first time I had shrimp & grits, that delectable southern classic, and ladled the creamy yellow corn porridge I remember thinking: “ah so grits is like polenta!” 

I think what matters is the whole grain part, traditional milling methods, artisanal production and corn varieties or even heirloom corn. Make either polenta or grits but get your hands on the good stuff: stone-ground whole grain corn from an artisan miller or local producer.

Funny enough, from conversations ‘over the years’ I know that not everyone knows what grits is but polenta at the very least rings an immediate bell. For me, too, polenta has been engrained (pardon the pun) as a dish in my culinary memory for much longer than grits has. I had never heard of grits until I first moved to the States.

Now, grits has a sense of place for me. When I cook stone-ground corn into a creamy porridge in Houston, it’s grits. It has to be grits.

Roots & Grits (but you can call it polenta)

This recipe is adapted from the recipe I published in Edible Houston‘s Fresh Beginnings Issue (Jan/Feb 2016). Use root vegetables you can find, even turnips, carrots, sweet potato or kohlrabi!

I like to cook my stone-ground corn thick enough that anything put on top doesn’t sink to the bottom of the bowl but definitely runny enough to spoon.

Serves 4

  • 4 medium beetroots in different colors (yellow, red, Choggia)
  • 4 medium parsnip (or black radish if you can find)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • sea salt to taste
  • 1 bunch radish (or watermelon radish if you can find it)
  • 2 cups stone-ground yellow corn
  • 4 cups good-flavored stock (vegetable or chicken)
  • 2 cups whole milk (I’ve also used coconut milk with great taste success)
  • 1 strip lemon peel
  • 1 cup finely grated cheese (Parmesan, cheddar or even Old Amsterdam)
  • fresh herbs for garnish
OIL & LEMON MARINADE
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of 1 (Meyer) lemon
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 450F

Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast in the oven until tender and soft (about 30 minutes).

Slice the parsnip (or black radish, or a mix of both) into 1/4-inch slices, toss with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Spread on a baking tray in a single layer and roast until charred. Transfer to a plate and keep at room temperature until needed.

Slice the radishes (watermelon radish and/or other) and toss in half of the oil & lemon marinade.

To cook the grits, bring stock and milk with the strip of lemon peel to a rolling boil. Use less liquid if you want a thicker, firmer porridge. Lower heat, add the grits and stir. Continue to stir until it thickens and the grits are cooked (soft to taste). Add more stock if the grits are too thick. Remove the lemon peel, mix in the cheese and keep warm.

Peel the roasted beets, cut into even-sized pieces and brush with some of the remaining oil & lemon marinade.

Divide the grits over 4 deep bowls and arrange all roots on top of the grits. Drizzle with remaining oil & lemon marinade, garnish with fresh herbs (I love basil, chervil and/or dill for this dish) and serve immediately.

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ps. if you are looking to fry or grill leftover grits as squares or triangles you will need a thicker grits (or polenta) than the 3:1 liquid to ground corn ratio in this recipe. 

Tidbits

Polenta comes from the Latin word ‘pollen’ which translates to ‘fine flour’ according to my old Latin dictionary (a relic from my high school days). Before corn appeared on the European agricultural scene, polenta was made with different grains like millet or barley. It goes to show that polenta is a dish, rather than an ingredient but of course, these days, it is officially both.

So, what is your take on polenta versus grits?