Vivian Howard’s Grits Changed My Life

By now, the festivities of the holiday season are behind us, and the new year is ahead.  The kids are out of school, I’m off work and we’re all enjoying our Christmas presents.

This year, my husband took my advice and went to Southern Season to find a gift for me.  I knew as soon as I saw the logo on the side of the rustic wooden crate – “Vivian Howard for Southern Season” – that I was going to love whatever was inside.  I’ve been a fan of Chef Howard’s since becoming addicted to her PBS show, “A Chef’s Life” earlier this year.  In the crate were a jar of Boat Street Pickled Figs and a bag of Old School Brand grits, along with a recipe card explaining how to “Pimp My Grits.”

Now let me just take a minute to explain that I am a Richmond, Virginia born and raised, Southern, grits-loving girl.  I’ve been eating grits my whole life, so I know a thing or two about good grits.  I remember my mom making pots of grits on the stove when I was little – delicious, thick and savory with a couple of pats of butter or some sausage and cheese thrown in.  I’ve been known to routinely eat instant grits for breakfast at work, and I’ve extolled the virtues of good ‘ol Southern grits to my Northerner friends and acquaintances.  I’ve eaten grits in some amazing restaurants, and I love my favorite Richmond grits:  Croaker’s Spot’s cheddar ranch grits (absolutely divine served with their fried fish).

With all that being said, Vivian Howard’s “pimped” grits quite literally changed my life.

It starts with the quality of the grits themselves, and there’s a huge difference between even my favorite store brand, House Autry, and the stone-ground Old School grits.  Then I discovered that Chef Howard uses milk (though she mentioned that you can use other liquids – water, or stock for savory grits).  I don’t know why, but I’ve never thought to use milk in my grits.  Lesson learned.

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Next, forget the old adage about a watched pot never boiling.  If you’re making grits, you’re watching your pot, though Chef Howard does offer the advice of using a double boiler if you don’t want to constantly stand and whisk – with the downside being that that method could take up to two hours (ain’t nobody got time for that!).  In went the grits and milk, on went the heat.

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Next is the labor-intensive part.  You want the grits to heat up almost to a boil, then stay on a simmer while they thicken.  This means near-constant whisking to keep the milk from scalding and the grits from burning to the bottom of the pot.  You want a nice, thick texture before you pull them off the heat, then Chef Howard instructs to add cream.

At this point, you can pour them into a bowl and “pimp” them.  I took Vivian’s suggestion and topped mine with a couple of pats of butter, crumbled oven-baked bacon, pickled figs and freshly-grated Parmesan.

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And there you have it – Vivian Howard’s pimped grits!  The combination of the salty, crispy bacon and Parmesan with the sweet and sour taste of the figs was the perfect match for the creamy grits.  I don’t know that I will ever make grits the same old way again.

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Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!

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Pennsylvania Dutch Food Culture in Lancaster, PA

Ever since I was little, my parents have taken me and my brother and sister to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania regularly.  As a kid, our summer vacation was often spent staying at a campground or a cabin for a week and visiting all the antique shops, farmer’s markets and Amish and Mennonite farms and stands.  Last Spring, my mom, my sister and I took my two boys back to Lancaster for a weekend trip, and my dad and brother felt left out, so the weekend after Thanksgiving this year, we took the whole family!  The weekend was perfect.  We stayed in a cabin with a woodstove and there was snow on the ground.  We got to see the downtown Lancaster Christmas tree lighting and watch Santa arrive on a fire truck.  We went to Dutch Wonderland, the tiny amusement park on the “main drag” of Route 30 that I adored when I was a kid.  And we ate… lots…

For anyone who’s never been to Lancaster, the main thing you need to remember is that the “Pennsylvania Dutch” aren’t really Dutch.  The German immigrants who sought religious freedom in America would tell people they were “deutsch” – the German word for a German person.  The miscommunication stuck, and the Amish were labeled the Pennsylvania Dutch, although most of them came from Germany, bringing their food culture with them.

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Lancaster’s Central Market.  This historic building just off the town square was originally opened in 1730, and features market stalls from local meat and cheese vendors, bakeries, produce stands and coffee shops.

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Oasis at Bird-in-Hand‘s meat and dairy products

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Checking out the chocolate

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Historic Lancaster Central Market

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Desserts from Shady Maple

We visited one of my favorite farmer’s markets in Bird-in-Hand on Saturday.  I had to re-stock my German spicy mustard from S. Clyde Weaver and I bought some amazing homemade fudge from Sweet Legacy Gourmet.  I love that the Bird-in-Hand farmer’s market vendors offer lots of samples, especially of the specialty meats and cheeses.  There were whoopie pies and shoofly pies in abundance!

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Bulk products like different types of flours and meals

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Mmm… desserts

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Shoofly pies!

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Sweet Legacy Gourmet

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Pickled everything!

After our farmer’s market visit, we drove just down the road to the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord.  Smorgasbord is a German word for what is essentially a buffet, with more dishes and desserts than you can shake a stick at.

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Buffet items

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Desserts (more shoofly pie!)

If you ever get the chance to visit Lancaster, you will fall in love with it.  There is a thriving downtown restaurant scene and plenty of opportunities to try Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.  The Amish and Mennonite style of cooking is steeped in German, Austrian and Swiss food traditions with a focus on simplicity and excellent-quality, fresh, local ingredients.  Once you’ve tried a shoofly pie, pickled vegetables or a pretzel in Pennsylvania Dutch country, nothing else will ever measure up.

 

Project “Family Food History” Thanksgiving

So of course by now, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it my Family Food History project.  Since my aunt always makes a full, traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy, I didn’t want to make a ton more food since I knew everybody would already be stuffed.  I settled on bringing:

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Gluhwein – German spiced mulled red wine

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Spekulatius – German spice cookies (the Dutch call them speculoos and they are amazingly delicious!)

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Bratwurst and Knackwurst with sauerkraut

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Yorkshire puddings

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Cheese plate with Scottish smoked salmon and cheeses from Holland, England, Scotland and Germany, served with French champagne dill mustard

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My aunt and the rest of my family made a delicious Thanksgiving feast.

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I made a pumpkin pie from scratch with hot water crust and used a pumpkin from my garden.  My cousin bought an apple pie with caramel sauce from the school marching band.

When we got home, me, my husband and our two boys listened to “Alice’s Restaurant” like we do every Thanksgiving.  Then I cooked second Thanksgiving just for us.

From my family to yours, I hope everyone reading had a wonderful Thanksgiving!