(Part two of a two-part series about the greatest American food: corn.)
When I was 11, our backyard butted up against a cornfield. On the other side of the cornfield was a golf course and, if you took a right about halfway across, you'd be on your way to the pig farm. Swank, right?
My small central Ohio hometown was surrounded on all sides by corn, soybeans, and more corn. We ate a lot of corn. There were farm stands everywhere and no shortage of the sweet stuff from about July through September.
Corn makes me wax romantic like the shrimp guy in that ridiculous, overly manipulative movie from the early 90s, the title of which I will not speak (but which features, as a taxi driver, a dude I crushed on at my first summer stock job): corn on the cob, creamed corn, corn pudding, corn bread, corn muffins, corn casserole, johnny cakes, hominy, popcorn...
But grits never made my list. Grits were gross. A year after we moved into that house by the cornfield, we moved again: this time to North Carolina, where my dad is from. I'd been there before to visit my grandparents, and I liked it enough, but it wasn't home.
We didn't just move when I was 12 and in 7th grade; we moved over Thanksgiving weekend in the middle of the school year. Note to parents everywhere: that's just mean. I hated everything about this new and very stupid place.
I hated the way They talked (What kina coke you want? translation: What kind of pop (soda) do you want?), the way They dressed (the kids dressed like teenagers, not like kids), and what They ate (grits are NOT like cream of wheat or hominy no matter what my mom says).
Finally, one day, after eight or so years, it clicked. Grits are corn, and I love corn. Corn is Ohio, and I love Ohio. And this North Carolina place is not so bad either. My dad is pretty great, and he's from here. In a late-night diner with a bunch of other NC transplants, I finally gave grits another chance. And the grits had a ton of cheese on them. And I may or may not have been a little worse for beer.
Before I knew my recent Jersey corn purchase was a semi-bust, I saved two ears to make some kind of corn dish. I was thinking corn pudding, but I couldn't find a recipe that I liked. Scouring my cookbooks, I found a recipe in Moosewood New Classics that combines fresh corn and grits, and another great (South) American grain: quinoa. And cheese. Sold.
Quinoa is "the gold of the Incas," and was as vital to their culture as corn was to North America's. Quinoa is truly a wonder grain: it is gluten free, easily digestible, and contains all nine amino acids making it a complete protein; all that and it has a delicious, nutty flavor that goes great with any dish in which you would use rice or cous cous.
Gaining popularity over the last couple of years, quinoa is a grain (okay, technically a seed) I never let run out in my pantry. I fix quinoa like I fix, well, grits. It's a breakfast staple, a rice substitute, and everyday go-to grain. It cooks up faster than rice, and, because it's more nutritionally complex, it's heartier.
Once again I have a recipe variation due to a misreading of the recipe. Here’s the sitch: My countertop is 1 ft wide x 2 ft deep and handily exists between the sink and stove. There is nowhere for a cookbook to live except on the table behind me. I read; I turn around; and what I remember is put into action.
Basically, I just cooked things out of order, caramelizing the corn in the process, and oh my stars, it turned out so good. The only thing I would change would be to make the cilantro a main herb instead of a garnish. It's such a compatible flavor, I wanted more. But still, so, so, good.
This pot of gold is a dish I will make again and again. It would be good for breakfast with eggs or supper as a main with sautéed greens on the side. Or just straight out of the pot with the wooden spoon. Viva el corn! Viva la quinoa! Viva la Americas!
Pan-American Grits with Quinoa
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics by The Moosewood Collective
Serves about 8
4 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup grits (regular or quick)
1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup chopped onions canola cooking spray (Note: Original recipe calls for 2 tbsp olive oil for sautéing.)
1 cup diced red (or green) bell pepper
1 tsp ground cumin (Note: I used 2 tsp cumin.)
1 tsp ground coriander (Note: I used 2 tsp coriander.)
1 cup fresh (or frozen or canned) corn kernels
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese (Note: Original recipe calls for 1 cup Cheddar cheese.)
chopped fresh cilantro (and/or scallions)
hot pepper sauce
1) Add water and salt to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil.
2) Whisking constantly, slowly add grits to water.
3) As soon as saucepan comes back up to a boil, add quinoa. Stir.
4) Drop heat to low. Cover. Cook/simmer around 25 minutes, stirring frequently.
5) Kill heat. Remove saucepan from burner. Let it sit (still covered) for 5 minutes or so. Stir in a little hot water if it’s too thick.
While the grits are cooking...
6) In the cast iron skillet I know you can’t live without, spray with canola cooking spray and sauté onions for 3 to 4 minutes.
7) Here’s where I veered from the directions in the book—like last week, because I misread—but it worked out so well. Add the spices and cook for 1 minute to roast them. [MC says to add peppers, cook for a couple minutes, then add spices, cook for 1 minute, then add corn.]
8) Add peppers and corn, and sauté for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. The corn is going to caramelize and be so freaking delicious.
When grits/quinoa is ready...
9) Mix sautéed veggies and cheese into grains and top with chopped cilantro and/or scallions. Serve with hot sauce and try not to freak out at how good it is. Or go ahead and freak out. Who am I to tell you how to express your emotions?
Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
160.4 calories, 3.8g fat, $0.79
1/2 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
3/4 cup grits: 434 calories, 1.5g fat, $0.49
1/2 cup quinoa: 313 calories, 5g fat, $0.69
1 cup chopped onions: 40 calories, .2g fat, $.50
cooking spray: 6 calories, 0 fat, $.02
1 cup red bell pepper: 51 calories, 0g fat, $1.67
1 tsp ground cumin: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
1 tsp ground coriander: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
1 cup fresh (or frozen or canned) corn kernels: 177 calories, 2g fat, $0.75
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese: 262 calories, 22g fat, $1.90
chopped fresh cilantro (and/or scallions): negligible calories and fat, $0.02
hot pepper sauce: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
TOTALS: 1,283 calories, 30.7g fat, $6.30
PER SERVING: 160.4 calories, 3.8g fat, $0.79