Corn grits—albeit not a South Indian staple—are easily available in Chennai. They come packaged in a few different varieties in bigger stores and are also sold by the kilo, wrapped in newspaper, in smaller shops. They work as a great replacement for polenta, so if you’re someone that shells out ₹₹₹ for that expensive stuff in specialty stores, you definitely want to give this a shot. These local grits work as a glorious substitute and for a fraction of the cost. This is not a one-to-one comparison to what you find in Italy or elsewhere, and I honestly haven’t traveled enough or know what they’re *supposed* to taste like. All I care about is that they work; and without breaking the bank, at that.
I said this about the texture that I like for my khichdi, and the same applies here: you want that happy medium where the grits stay together but also spread out onto the plate when wiggled back and forth. That sambar sadham/risotto consistency is what you’re after (and what I perpetually seem to be making the case for these days).
I’ve tried a few different types of corn grits and have found that I like a coarser grind. The ones closer in texture to samba rava than super-fine semolina give the best results. This is totally a personal preference though, and you will (and I have) gotten great results using either varieties. The main difference is that the coarser grains will have a slight chew and nubbly texture when cooked, and the super-fine granules tend to get a bit porridge-y. Choose your own adventure which way you want to go.
The grits get cooked first in salted water and are then left to sit until ready to serve. They will thicken as they cool. When you’re ready to serve up, stir in some milk and a good knob of butter to get the right consistency. I’ve given the milk quantity in the recipe below for the runniness that I like, but by all means reduce this and make it thicker if you prefer.
The smokiness of the sauce comes solely from flame-roasting the eggplants. Someone recently asked me if they could roast them in the oven instead. The answer is yes—and especially if you only own an electric hob—by all means do. It will still taste great. But there is that element of smoky complexity that I’m afraid only blistering over an open flame will achieve. (I’m assuming you ain’t firing up your barbecue grill for two eggplants.)
The rest of the sauce only involves chopping some veg, and cooking them all down in spices with a handful of chickpeas thrown in. Nothing too arduous or time-consuming I promise. Chickpeas add bulk to the sauce and also work well with this inadvertent Ottolenghi-inspired theme I seem to have going on here. You could, I reckon, change the ratios of veg or add others (zucchini, mushroom, banana pepper) and also swap out the chickpeas for other beans.
I swear by the ‘what grows together goes together’ logic (shrug) and to this day it hasn’t let me down. Having said that, I don’t always get kale where I live, so I sub it out with spinach when I can’t find any. The addition of cumin, coriander and chilli flakes adds some interest here and also complements the smoky flavour. The grits are also somewhat neutral in taste, and this sauce-ragu situation really brings everything to life.
GRITS + CHICKPEAS & SMOKY VEGETABLES
- 1 ¼ cup grits (see notes)
- ⅓ cup milk
- 25 grams butter
- 2 tsp salt (plus more to taste)
Chickpeas & smoky veg:
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- 5 tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 2 red peppers, de-seeded and sliced
- 2 eggplants
- 1 ½ cups chopped kale (or spinach)
- 7 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp chilli flakes, or to taste
- 2 tsp coriander powder
- 2 tsp cumin powder
- ¼ cup basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp oil
- Salt, to taste
- Rinse the grits in a colander until the water runs clear. Add to a pot with 4 cups of water and salt. Cover and cook over a low-medium heat for 10-20 mins. Whisk occasionally as it starts to thicken. (Note: how long they take to cook would largely depend on how fine or coarse your grits are. Once they’ve absorbed all the water and start to catch on the whisk, taste and cook for longer if need be). Add more water if necessary. You’re looking for the consistency of thick oatmeal.
- Once the grits have cooked, remove from the heat and clamp on a lid. Let it sit until you’re ready to serve. Milk and butter will be stirred in just before serving.
- Roast the eggplants over an open flame, turning frequently with tongs. You want the skins blistered and charred on all sides. Add them to a bowl. Cover and let them steam for 10 mins.
- Flake away the eggplant skins. Roughly chop and set aside.
- Heat oil in a pan and sauté garlic until lightly browned. Add the tomatoes and peppers to the pan along with chilli flakes and salt. Cover and cook until they start to break down, about 5-7 mins.
- Stir in the chopped eggplant, kale/spinach, coriander powder, cumin powder, and chickpeas. Add about ¼ cup of water to loosen. Cover and cook on low for 10-15 mins. Add more water if necessary.
- Remove from heat and stir in the basil leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- When you’re ready to serve, put the grits back over a low heat and whisk in the milk and butter. Add half the quantity of milk first and then add more to get the right consistency. Taste and add more salt if necessary. I like it slightly runny, but keep it thicker if you prefer.
- Serve immediately with the smoky chickpeas and veg spooned over the top.