A s an Illinois native who grew up in an Italian American family, you shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that my first exposure to grits was in Nashville. Almost every restaurant in Music City has their take on what I initially considered “polenta with shrimp.” My friends at the table proceeded to ask me what polenta was. I was shocked to hear that they had never enjoyed this classic Italian dish, but I think they were more surprised that I’ve never had grits.
In my family, polenta for dinner means we’re having cornmeal topped with tomato sauce. In the olden days of Italy, polenta was considered a poor man’s meal since it traditionally consisted of some type of ground legume or grain cooked with water for a very long time. The English translation of polenta actually resembles the term “slowpoke” because of the lengthy cooking time.
So did I grow up eating grits with tomato sauce, or are they different from polenta? Both grits and polenta are essentially cornmeal, but the type of corn and texture of the cornmeal differ. Traditional polenta is ground from flint corn. Eight-row flint corn, or otto file, grown in Italy makes for truly authentic polenta. Flint corn has a hard starch center, which results in the polenta having a more granular texture when cooked. Grits are milled from a higher starch dent corn that has been hulled. Hulled corn means the hard outer covering of the corn kernel has been removed. The result is a smooth, creamy, and paler cooked product.
Since most varieties of grits are hulled, they lose the extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals found in the outer covering AKA the hull. Both stone ground grits and polenta reap the extra nutritional benefits since they include the hull. Try a serving of stone ground polenta as a whole grain alternative to traditional pasta noodles. Polenta can be found in most grocery stores next to the pasta. Ease into my polenta fan club by trying the Polenta and Shrimp recipe below!