Italian polenta and southern grits aren't exactly the same thing.
The Italian dish is made from yellow corn while grits are made from white corn, but both kind of serve the same role in their respective cultures. In homes where meat was scarce and expensive, it could be a main component of a warm, filling and economical meal.
Growing up in Ohio and being a finicky eater, I wasn't familiar with grits until my family's first trip to Florida, and I wasn't happy about that pale, lumpy pool coming dangerously close to the eggs and bacon on my plate at some southern diner we stopped at on the drive there.
Lemon-Garlic Shrimp and Grits is a quick, simple recipe with a lot of flavor.
And not being Italian, I had zero experience with polenta growing up, outside of my mother occasionally making fried mush for breakfast (I had something else).
Becoming more adventurous as I got older and marrying into an Italian family, I've become a fan of both.
We fix polenta at home occasionally, but my wife usually makes it when we do. This year for her birthday, she said she wanted sausage and polenta for dinner, which meant I had to expand my cooking repertoire.
Creamy Parmesan Polenta with Sausage Ragu
1 pound Italian turkey sausage or regular pork sausage links (remove casings)
1 small red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook sausage in a large pot over medium heat, breaking up the meat so it looks like ground beef. Cook for about 10 minutes until it is cooked through and no longer pink. Remove the sausage from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a paper-towel-covered plate to absorb some of the fat. Set aside.
Pour out all but a tablespoon of the fat in the pot. Add the onion to the pot and saute for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic, stirring for a minute or so until it softens. Add the tomatoes, crushing with the back of a spoon.
Let the mixture come to a boil then reduce the heat and let simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes, covered. Add water if it seems dry.
Stir in sausage, balsamic vinegar and basil and cook for a minute or two over low heat. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper.
Creamy Parmesan Polenta
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta (not quick cooking) or yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated parmesan, plus extra for grating on top
Bring water to a boil in medium saucepan. Slowly add the polenta in a steady stream and whisk the mixture constantly while adding and for another two minutes before reducing the heat. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, lifting the lid to whisk the polenta about every 10 minutes. The mixture should be the consistency of grits when finished.
Remove from heat and whisk in the olive oil and parmesan. Serve immediately by spooning the polenta into a bowl and topping with the sauce.
Lemon-Garlic Shrimp and Grits
3/4 cup instant grits
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Juice of a 1/2 lemon plus wedges for serving
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh parsley
Bring three cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat, covered. Uncover and slowly whisk in the grits along with a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook for about five minutes until thickened, stirring occasionally.
Add parmesan and a tablespoon of butter. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste and keep covered to keep the grits warm.
Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Melt remaining two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp, garlic and cayenne and cook until the shrimp are pink, about 3 or 4 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add two tablespoons of water, the lemon juice and parsley, stirring to coat the shrimp with the sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Divide the grits into four bowls and top with the shrimp and sauce. Serve with lemon wedges.
Instead of making sausage links with polenta, I did a little exploring online and found a recipe at a website called The Yellow Table for a creamy parmesan polenta with sausage ragu.
I tweaked the recipe some. I used DiRusso turkey sausage instead of pork sausage to cut the fat, but I also doubled the amount of meat in the sauce to make it thicker and chunkier (and negating any calorie savings).
My first attempt at polenta went pretty well. Be careful that the polenta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. And if it does, be careful not to stir up that blackened polenta and have the burned flavor permeate the dish.
I lost a little polenta to the bottom of the pan, but it didn't affect the flavor of the dish.
And on a table with stuffed shells, meatballs, antipasto salad and fresh bread (the last three all from Jimmy's in Liberty), the polenta was the hit of the meal.
A week later, we were talking about shrimp and grits, so I decided to go in search of a recipe and found a quick, simple one on the Food Network website.
As anyone who's tried to replicate Rachael Ray's TV recipes knows, 30-minute-meals seldom are when making them at home, but this recipe really does come together in 30 minutes, maybe a little less.
Now, I know one of the witnesses in "My Cousin Vinny" testified that no self-respecting southerner would use quick grits. But that's what the recipe called for, and they tasted great. If you want to be a purist, it would be easy to use slow-cookin' grits and adjust the time accordingly.
I followed the recipe as printed, except I used Meyer lemons instead of traditional lemons because they were in season and I already had some in the house. Everyone liked the recipe, but I think it would have been better with the tart, acidic bite of regular lemons instead of using the sweeter Meyer variety.