My father was the primary breakfast-maker in our West Texas family, and he loved his grits.
Some, especially in the deep South, take their grits like a hot cereal, with a splash of cream and sweetened with sugar, maple syrup (only not real maple: the “Log Cabin” imposter) or sorghum syrup.
My family favored savory for our steaming bowls of creamy, corny goodness: with salt, a pat of butter melting on top and heavy on the black pepper. Creamy, but still substantial, with some chew left to them.
Another weekend breakfast favorite was buttermilk biscuits smothered in sausage gravy. My dad’s biscuits were passable. But it took years for my mother to perfect her biscuit-making.
I was well on my way to following in my mom’s flat-biscuit footsteps when I happened to take a breakfast-cooking class at Southern Season (www.southernseason.com) in Chapel Hill. I was in North Carolina working on a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina. My biscuit breakthrough and some tips are shared below.
This breakfast is heavy on the carbs and protein, and we’d almost never have all these things in one meal. But as a special treat, especially for a rainy Sunday brunch with company over, this is a Southern feast that warms the tummy and the heart.
These days I usually add a fresh seasonal fruit salad to the table. That’s the Northwest’s glorious contribution to the Southern breakfast.
A note on ingredients
Home cooking in the rural South and Southwest was “farm-to-table” long before that was a big-city thing.
Many years and hundreds of miles from that childhood food paradise, I try to buy local, seasonal and fresh.
The exceptions are the flour (see tip) and grits. I can’t find stone-ground grits in the stores here. Quaker Quick Grits seems to be the only option, and they are just not acceptable.
Southerners generally like their grits made from white corn. Yellow works just fine. A friend of mine turned up her nose at grits until I informed her that they are the same thing as polenta (and proved it with the divine shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill). A perfectly acceptable substitute for the Plantation stone-ground white corn grits I use (mail order) is Bob’s Redmill Corn Grits (“also known as polenta,” it says right on the package). Widely available in grocery stores here.
Meat: After a visit to Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood last year (www.pigspeace.org), I have had serious second thoughts about eating animals, especially pigs. I’ll leave the philosophical decisions alone here, but my personal philosophy on meat, especially pork, is that it must be humanely raised and slaughtered, cooked with appreciation and never wasted.
That said, finding such sausage is a challenge. I researched at Sno-Isle Food Coop (www.snoislefoods.coop) here in Everett and found a wonderful regional source. It’s Jack Mountain Meats here in Washington. (https://jackmountainmeats.com). I use the sage breakfast sausage, which is perfect for this recipe.
Sausage gravy can be a nasty, floury, greasy mess. (Never, ever order it from a chain restaurant.) I confess to having mostly given up on it until that Southern Season cooking class. There I learned the key: Cook that sausage until it has given up its last bit of fat. Render it into submission. Yes, it will look a little overcooked. Once the milk has done its work, the sausage will be re-hydrated, tender and tasty, and you’ll have gravy that makes for a “hallelujah,” not a heart attack.
Cooking grits is super simple, but they need to cook for a relatively long time — and near the end of that cooking time they need a lot of stirring or they stick and burn. This happens right when you are trying to get the biscuits out of the oven and the gravy to the right consistency.
This solution works like a charm: I start the grits first thing, in a heavy-bottomed pan, right on the burner. Pay attention to them and stir often. Once they start to thicken, set the pan into another slightly larger pan with a couple of inches of water in it, simmering. You could use a double boiler, if you have one, but this hack works just fine.
They can stay that way, covered, until they’re ready. Just give them a stir when you think about it. They will not stick, you can basically ignore them until you are ready to serve. If they get a little too thick, add some milk or water and give them a stir. If they’re too thin, take the lid off and let them cook a couple of minutes longer. Foolproof.
The secrets to a tender, lofty biscuit are the flour and the buttermilk. Buttermilk gives them flavor and a nice crumb. From my mother I learned to put a pinch of baking soda in the buttermilk for a little boost of leavening.
At Southern Season I learned that flour matters. The reason quick breads (like biscuits and cornbread) developed in the South and yeast breads (like rye and pumpernickel, etc.) are more prevalent in the North is because of the wheat that was available in the two regions.
Northern farmers mostly grew the hard summer wheat, which had a lot of gluten. Perfect for yeast-risen, kneaded breads.
Southern farmers grew the soft winter wheat: low-gluten, terrible for yeast breads, perfect for biscuits.
Today, most “all-purpose” flours are a blend of the two types. But gluten makes quick breads dense and heavy. Southern bakers swear by soft wheat flours like White Lily and Martha White. Virtually all Southern grocery stores carry them. I haven’t been able to find those here, so I mail-order White Lily (www.whitelily.com/products). You can use cake flour — which is low-gluten — for biscuits, but I find it’s a little too finely ground for my taste. But it’s the substitute for biscuits if you have no other option.
These are really simple, accessible dishes. It’s all in the technique.
There are two recipes for biscuits here: my family recipe and a fabulous version I had in North Carolina, called Cat’s Head (reportedly because they’re as big as a …). That recipe comes from Chapel Hill resident Jean Anderson’s great book: “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking.” It’s more than a cookbook, it’s a well-researched, well-tested compendium of Southern food history and recipes. I recommend it as a reference to anyone who’d like to explore that region’s rich culinary offerings.
Basic Texas buttermilk biscuit
1 cup unsifted flour (see tip)
1½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup lard or vegetable shortening
½-¾ cup cultured buttermilk
Pinch (¼ teaspoon) baking soda
1 tablespoon of melted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt with whisk. Cut in the shortening (cold butter can be substituted for half the shortening). Work the fat into flour until it’s small pea shapes, but don’t overwork.
Mix in the buttermilk, until mix is just together. Again, don’t overwork.
Turn onto floured board, knead once or twice and pat (don’t roll) into a disk, about an inch thick.
Cut with a biscuit cutter (my mom used the rim of a water glass) and place on parchment paper on a baking sheet, not touching. Brush tops with melted butter.
Bake until just golden, or about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Cat’s head biscuits
5 Tablespoon bacon drippings or lard
1½ cup unsifted flour (see tip)
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup room temperature buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Whisk 4 tablespoons of the bacon drippings or melted lard into the buttermilk until creamy. Whisk flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the well and stir until just mixed (don’t overmix).
Turn out onto a floured board and knead until combined, less than a minute, maybe 6 or 7 times.
Pat into a disk (2 or so inches tall) and cut into even quarters (with a bench scraper or large knife). Form the quarters into balls (gently, don’t overwork) and place in a cast iron skillet with the last tablespoon of bacon drippings in the bottom.
Bake for 30-35 minutes until just golden. Serve hot.
This recipe is for the type of stone-ground grits I use. You should follow the cooking method on the package. Cooking time and amount of liquid varies substantially depending on the grind and type of grits you’re using.
1 cup stone ground grits
1 tablespoon butter
4 cups water
½ to 1 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
Combine water, grits, butter and salt in heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Heat to boiling, stirring a couple of times, then reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally.
When grits begin to thicken, stir in 1/2 cup of milk and put the pan over a boiling water bath (see tip), and continue cooking, 20-30 minutes until texture is creamy and grits are cooked. If they get too thick, add milk or water. Cover when they’re done and keep the water bath barely simmering until it’s time to eat.
1 pound sage breakfast sausage
1-2 tablespoons flour
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
2 cups milk (whole or 2 percent)
If sausage is in casings, cut them off with kitchen shears and break up the meat in pan (preferable cast iron skillet).
Cook over medium heat until brown and the fat is well-rendered (see Tips)
Pour off the fat and return about 2 tablespoons to the pan.
Add about the same amount of flour (2 tablespoons) to the pan and stir until the flour is bubbly and well-cooked.
Add the milk a little at a time and keep it well-stirred. Cook until gravy is the thickness you like. Add more milk if it gets too thick, but make sure to cook in after each addition. Salt and pepper to taste.