Not exactly the same thing as shrimp ‘n grits, but then, these little carrots might just fool you upon first glance. Talk about making something exciting out of two not very exciting, (laughably) non-exotic, and non-expensive ingredients. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.
It’s always best when those two ingredients are prime as can be. These eye-catching baby carrots stole me as I tried to rush through the Union Square Greenmarket a couple Wednesdays ago. Sweet, bright orange, and with an icicle-like crispness, they were perfect for snacking (although the farmer at S&SO Farms described them to me as a “chef’s variety”). I couldn’t wait to crunch into them while on the subway back to Brooklyn, and felt bad that everyone on the crowded car watching me couldn’t also try. These carrots, the farmer explained, had surprised them — planted just before Hurricane Irene washed away the rest of their crops, they didn’t imagine the seeds would germinate. But they did eventually, and produced such tasty, little fingers that I wonder if it wasn’t a silver lining to that cloud.
I picked up these grits because of their attractive packaging. I’m glad to see such humble, yet nutritious, grains like grits and polenta (essentially the same thing, only usually from yellow corn) get the luxury-food treatment. The grits were found at Bklyn Larder, one of my favorite local cheese and specialty food shops, and they’re described as “Georgia ice cream” on the cloth bag. Indeed, these are some creamy grits, as long as you cook them slowly and with enough stirring that they practically melt into their own starchy sauce. I’m not a Southern girl or Georgia Peach myself, and it was a while before I even knew of grits’ existence (I think it was actually when I watched Joe Pesci’s “My Cousin Vinny” ask a bemused diner cook, “What is a grit?”)
I was surprised at how tasty this dish turned out, and it’s testament to the charms that just a couple well-chosen, natural seasonings can lend. Sage has a beautifully savory flavor, especially when crisped up in pure butter. The herb’s essence spreads throughout the butter as it begins to brown on the pan, and becomes concentrated in the shriveled, chip-like leaves. The perfect garnish for soups, pasta, or these simple grits. I gave the grits a good squeeze of lemon juice along with butter, too, just to liven them up. As long as I had that lemon, another squeeze went into the sage brown butter to create a sauce that was good enough to scrape from the pan.
Lemony Grits with Baby Carrots & Sage
(makes 3-4 portions)
1 cup coarse, white grits
4 cups water
1/2 lb small carrots (can be cut down to slender, roughly 1-inch pieces)
3 tablespoons butter
10-12 sage leaves
zest and juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Bring the water to a boil. Add the grits, 1 tablespoon butter, and a generous pinch of salt. Reduce heat to a steady, but low boil and stir frequently for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan with a lid. Let cook until light-brown and bubbling, and add the sage leaves. Stir and flip until leaves are darker in color throughout and a little dried-up looking. Remove leaves and set aside. Add the baby carrots to the pan and stir for 1-2 minutes. Turn off heat and cover while you finish the polenta.
Add the lemon zest (retaining some for garnish) and half of its juice to the polenta and salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze the remaining lemon juice into the carrots and stir to combine with the butter. Plate the polenta first, and divide the carrots and sauce among the plates. Add the sage leaves to each plate for garnish along with the extra lemon zest and serve.
(for 3-4 servings)
1 cup grits (at $8/1 lb sack): $4.00
1/2 lb baby carrots (at $2.50/lb): $1.25
3 Tb butter: $0.75
1 lemon: $0.35
12 sage leaves (from houseplant): $0.30
salt and pepper: $0.05
Three brownie points: A little butter goes a long way to coddle these healthful ingredients into a sublime-tasting first course or simple lunch. Carrots, especially when cooked lightly like this, are full of vitamins and have a satisfying flavor and bite that makes for a pretty good meat substitute. There’s some protein to be found in the whole corn, as well as niacin, iron and riboflavin, and there’s even some extra Vitamin C from the fresh lemon juice. For a winter dish, it doesn’t get much lighter than this.
Eight maple leaves: The grits were made by a historic granary that’s been in operation since 1876 in Georgia, called Nora Mill Granary, and supporting this and other small agricultural businesses, you’re saying yes to a tradition that’s in danger of being totally replaced. Same goes for local farm products found at the Greenmarket, like the carrots, which really couldn’t be found anywhere else (or at any other time of the year, or in this case, maybe any other year!). Homegrown herbs that do well in the winter include sage, so grab a plant or two to fancy up your winter cooking soon.