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“Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together”: Sweet Potato Grits

Elizabeth is a folklorist, a teacher, and a culinary experimenter with a low boredom threshold.  She and her partner have recently added a giant puppy to their household; he impedes the experimentation, but she loves him anyway.  They live in a large, old house with a small, old kitchen in upstate New York.  Elizabeth blogs at

Somehow, I never got around to grits until this winter.  My mother grew up in the South and she loves them; but my father is from the North and he doesn’t.  So the grits of my childhood were infrequent spoonfuls from Shoney’s breakfast buffets; white and wet and bland and, well, gritty.  Forgettable, if not for the dissonance between my Mama’s evident pleasure and the watery puddle creeping towards my French toast fingers.

As an adult, I became a lover of all porridgy foods: steel-cut oatmeal, risotto, polenta, congee.  But not grits — not until, just a little while ago, I was served cheese grits as a side dish at the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia.  Heavens!  I don’t remember what unremarked entree they sat beside.  But I vividly recall their puddingy, cheddary goodness.  If ever a food was as comforting as a warm nap (or necessitated a warm nap), this was it.

My first couple of attempts did not, alas, achieve that level of homespun glory.  For one thing, I didn’t know anything about how grits should look in the pan, or how a grits-friendly recipe should be shaped.  Once they came out clumpy.  Once, sticky with cheese.  Once: “You put eggs in this?” a southern friend asked in polite astonishment, tasting a cheese-laced, grits-based casserole.  “You don’t need eggs in cheese grits.”  This perfectly paralleled my rice pudding experience, which culminated in the production of an eggy, gelid, baked rice pudding I found so repulsive that I tipped the whole quivering mess into the bin.

I thought I should simplify my approach to grits.  Start with the basics.  But basic grits, in my experience, were boring.  I set them aside for a while, as a puzzle I hadn’t solved.  I put grits in the mental storage locker where I keep the rice pudding and also pumpkin pasta sauce and pad Thai, all culinary challenges I have yet to overcome.  But grits weren’t quite done with me.

Three times in the last month, I stumbled across the very same recipe for Sweet Potato Grits.  It comes from Virginia Willis’ new cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, a Southern-flavored, French-influenced collection of dual recipes: one basic, one tarted up for company.  I suspect that the Sweet Potato Grits recipe — and its fancier-pants companion, a grits-based spoonbread — have been distributed for publicity purposes; they certainly offer an enticing glimpse of the potential inherent in Willis’ approach.

As it happened, I was just about to host a brunch whose guests were all Southerners or celiacs (or both), so grits were an obvious choice.  When I mentioned the recipe to a friend and he said, “Two of my favorite foods!  Together at last!” it seemed fated.  I approached the recipe with some trepidation, given my grits experience (or lack thereof).  But did I make it once the week before to try it out?  Of course not.  I got out my heavy-bottomed saucepan on Sunday morning with a trembling hand.  The recipe calls for a cup of stone-ground grits, but I had plain Quaker old-fashioned grits languishing in the back of the pantry, so I used them.  Preparation was absurdly easy: heat the milk, add the cup of grits, whisking, and then the grated sweet potatoes.  Season and simmer for, oh, about an hour.

Actually it took a little over an hour; I consulted with a guest, who poked the orange mess in my saucepan with a wooden spoon and pronounced them done.  “But you can’t overcook grits,” she said, “So don’t worry.”

We finished with a dollop of butter as the recipe indicated, and then I added a swirl of cream because I am convinced that cream improves almost any dish.

The grits turned out saffron-colored, cinnamon-scented, and remarkably fluffy.  The slight sweetness of the potatoes and the hint of pie-type spiciness were just enough to stand in for the indulgent element at a brunch that lacked coffee cakes or cinnamon rolls or other deliciously indigestible gluten-filled brunchable baked goods.

Clean plates are the best compliment.

I don’t brunch often; indeed, I don’t even cook breakfast most mornings, because I’m so far from being a morning person that I’ve been known to set my bathrobe on fire while boiling water.  But now that brunch season is upon us, ushered in by the holidays, I’m pleased to add a new recipe to my repertoire.  These grits meet my need for ease in any morning cookery, and fulfill my dreams of creamy, fluffy, flavorful comfort food.

Perhaps it’s time to tackle rice pudding again.

Virginia Willis’ Sweet Potato Grits

  • 2 cups of water
  • 2 cups of milk
  • 1 cup of stone-ground grits (I used Quaker Old-Fashioned)
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Combine the water and milk and bring to a low boil.  Slowly whisk in the grits.  Add the sweet potato and stir.  Season with salt and pepper (and I added the ginger and cinnamon at this point, too).  Lower the heat and simmer, stirring often, until creamy and thick.  (The recipe says 45-60 minutes; your results will depend on how slow your simmer is.)

When the mixture has thickened and the grits and the sweet potato are both tender, add ginger, cinnamon, and butter.  (I added heavy cream, too.)  Taste and adjust for seasoning.  Serve promptly.

Serves 4-6, generously

PS: I ate the leftovers for breakfast this morning, reheated with a bit more cream.  Lovely.