The rustic texture and toasty corn flavor of stone-ground grits bear little resemblance to the bland porridge of Jason Starnes’s youth. At South City Kitchen, he uses a 50/50 blend of earthy, yellow grits from Mills Farm in Athens and sweeter-tasting white grits from Riverview Farms in Ranger. Slow cooking and constant stirring bring out the natural starch and create an ultra-creamy consistency. Starnes pairs them with shrimp, housemade Tasso ham, and smoked tomato-poblano gravy. “There are a million ways to go with grits,” he says.
1 Pour 3 cups water and 1 cup heavy cream—any more will make the grits too rich—into a heavy saucepan set over medium heat.
2 Add about ½ tsp. kosher salt and a few grindings of pepper to the liquid.
3 Once the water is hot, but not boiling, add 1 cup grits in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep the grits from scorching.
4 When the water is close to boiling, reduce heat to medium-low. Keep stirring, and don’t rush. As the grains slowly release their starch, they will cling to the spoon, like a custard. Taste for tenderness. If the grits thicken too much, thin with a little water.
5 When the grits are almost done, turn off the burner. The residual heat will finish the cooking. Add ½ stick butter and stir until melted.
6 Season with more salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe: South City Kitchen Shrimp and Grits with Smoked Tomato Gravy: 4 to 6 servings
This full recipe that’s been a menu favorite since the early days of its 24-year-old sister restaurant in Midtown.
2 cups Smoked Tomato Gravy (recipe follows)
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups water (plus more, as needed)
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup stone-ground grits (SCK uses a mixture of yellow Mills Farm grits and white grits from Riverview Farm)
4 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp
8 ounces Tasso ham, cut in small dice
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup chopped poblano chiles
1 Tbs. plus 1tsp. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Make the Smoked Tomato Gravy (this can be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen).
Make the grits (see Technique for more details): In a heavy saucepan, heat cream and water to a simmer over medium heat. Add ½ tsp. salt and a few grindings of pepper.
Slowly stir in grits, reduce heat to medium-low, and continue to cook and stir until tender and smooth, about 30 to 45 minutes. Be careful not to let it scorch.
Add butter and stir till melted. Adjust seasoning as desired. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Cook the shrimp: In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until oil is shimmering but not smoking.
Add ham, chiles, and garlic, and sauté for a minute or two, until tender.
Add the shrimp; cook and stir just until shrimp begin to turn pink, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add 2 cups sauce; reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until shrimp are cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add butter and adjust seasoning. Serve over cooked grits.
Smoked Tomato Gravy: 1 quart
You’ll only need half this recipe to make shrimp and grits for 4 servings, but go ahead and make the full batch and freeze the rest for later. It would be great over fried chicken or pork chops, with rice or mashed potatoes. If you don’t have a smoker or don’t want to fool with smoking the tomatoes, you can skip that step. It will taste different but will still be delicious.
1 (14 ½-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½ stick (2 ounces) butter
¼ cup chopped yellow onion
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp. minced thyme leaves
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken stock
1 ½ tsp. Texas Pete
1 ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 bay leaf
Pour the tomatoes, juice and all, in a square cake pan. Cold-smoke in a smoker for about 45 minutes, or in the residual heat of a covered charcoal grill after the coals have died down. (Or, omit this step. It will still taste delicious without the smoky flavor).
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, and thyme; cook and stir until tender, about 2 minutes. Add paprika, Old Bay, and cayenne, and cook for 1 minute longer.
Stir in flour to make roux; cook and stir about 2 minutes, until raw flavor disappears.
Add stock, Texas Pete, Worcestershire, and tomatoes; simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until thickened and bubbly.
Add lemon juice; season to taste with salt and pepper.
Roughly puree with an immersion blender or in the bowl of a food processor. Return the mixture to the saucepan, add bay leaf, and allow to steep over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf. Label, date, cool, and store the gravy in the refrigerator until ready to use, if not using immediately.
About chef Jason Starnes
Ever since Starnes was a child in Hickory, North Carolina, he’s known he wanted to cook professionally. After studying culinary arts at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and cooking in several hometown restaurants, Starnes moved to Atlanta. He worked in catering before helming the kitchen of the Westin Hotel’s revolving Sun Dial restaurant. In May the Fifth Group named him executive chef of South City Kitchen’s Buckhead outpost.
This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.