Polenta versus grits. What’s the difference? Is there really any? Grits are something I became familiar with back in 2005. I had finished my year of studying in Austin, TX and bought a Greyhound bus pass, embarking on an adventure that took me and my closest travelling ally through the deep south.
Along the way, the thing that struck me time and again was people’s open-armed hospitality. You’ve heard of Southern hospitality but until you turn up on a stranger’s door step and have them welcome you into their home, give you a place to sleep and food to eat as if you were long-lost family, you haven’t known it. This happened to me in middle-of-nowhere Florida, en route to the Florida Folk Festival, and it’s one of my lasting memories of that adventure.
I woke up near the banks of the Suwannee River in a stranger’s home – the family friends of a “friend” I had met at a hostel – to the smell of sizzling bacon and laughing voices. The bacon had been bought from a local farmer that morning and was thick, salty and perfectly paired with cold, sweet tea, runny eggs, and creamy grits.
That is my lasting memory of grits.
But polenta? I have no story to tell of discovering it while exploring Italy or some such wondrous experience. Instead, I recently bought some cornmeal with the sole purpose of exploring the differences between grits and their fancier sounding cousin, polenta.
Here’s the thing: they are not all that different. Maybe they look a little different and the typical preparations of each are certainly different but they definitely taste pretty alike.
Grits for breakfast [source]
According to everything that I’ve read, it comes down to the part of the corn kernel used, and the size of the grind. This article explains it thus:
“Classic hominy grits come from corn that has been stripped of its hull, leaving behind the white kernel, which is then ground to the consistency of coarse sand.
Polenta consists of whole corn kernels coarsely ground.
Because grits are ground so fine, they cook faster. Polenta, on the other hand, is so coarse that you may stand at the stove stirring it for 45 minutes before the ground grain gets creamy.”
In terms of cultural differences in preparation, Italy has claimed polenta as its version of the cornmeal mush and the typical cooking method is with water or stock. It’s often allowed to cool, set and harden, before being sliced, sauteed, and fried and served with anything from fish and meat to tomato sauce and cheese.
Grits on the other hand originate from the deep south in America and are typically served as a breakfast cereal, alongside bacon, sausage and eggs, or as a side dish (shrimp & grits, anyone?). They’re sort of a typical every-man’s food in the way that potatoes are in England – classic peasant food, if you will – simple, adaptable, and cheap.
So, in beginning my exploration of polenta, I stumbled upon this recipe from Dana Treat. I made it several weeks ago when tomatoes were literally falling off the stands at the farmers’ market and basil was perfectly sweet. If you still have some end of season tomatoes then I heartily recommend this dish.
Other explorations will be forthcoming, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be keeping close to my heart the sagacity of that article’s author who notes that the discovery of grits (in my case, polenta) provides a wonderful new way to get butter and cheese into my life. Amen to that.
Polenta Baked with Corn, Tomatoes and Basil
adapted from Dana Treat
- Polenta (recipe follows)
- 1½-2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce (try my homemade sauce)
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 3 ears of corn, kernels shaved off the cob
- ¾ pound tomatoes, cored and seeded
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1/2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and finely chopped
- ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- First make the polenta (see below). Make sure you have plenty of time to allow it to set up.
- Heat the butter in a large skillet and add the corn. Sauté over medium heat just until the corn is tender, about 5 minutes for very fresh corn. Season with a sprinkling of salt. While the corn is cooking, cut the tomatoes into large pieces. Marinate the tomatoes in the olive oil with a ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cool the corn and toss with the tomatoes, half the basil, and the chiles. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Pour the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking pan. Arrange the polenta triangles upright in tows across the width of the dish, overlapping the triangles slightly; use all of the polenta. Spoon the vegetables into the spaces between the polenta triangles, separating the rows as you go. Sprinkle with the cheese. Cover and bake for 25 minutes, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes, until the gratin is bubbly. Sprinkle on the remaining basil and serve.
- 6 cups water
- 1½ tsp. salt
- 1½ cups coarse cornmeal
- ¼ tsp. pepper
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Lightly oil a 9×13-inch baking dish and set aside. Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the salt, then vigorously whisk in the cornmeal. Bring it back to a boil, stirring all the while, then reduce the heat as low as it will go. Cover the pan. Stir every 5 minutes or so until the polenta is smooth, about 20 minutes all together.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pepper, the butter, and the cheese. Pour the hot polenta into the baking dish and set aside to cool. Once it is cool, cover and refrigerate to make the polenta even more firm. Once cold, dump the whole thing out on a cutting board and cut it into 12 squares. Cut each square into two triangles.