Let it soak, let it soak, let it soak.
Yes, that’s me taking liberties with the refrain from a certain Christmas song that we’ll all be hearing on repeat soon enough.
But it’s also the mantra that Chef Josef Centeno adheres to when it comes to making grits.
San Antonio-raised Centeno is chef-owner of six Los Angeles-area establishments: Baco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston, Ledlow, P.Y.T, and Penny-Ante Provisions catering. Before opening those, he worked at Daniel in New York, and was chef de cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos.
I zeroed in on his “Creamy Grits with Blistered Tomatoes, Pickled Serrano Chiles, and Sunflower-Miso Tahini” recipe when I received a review copy of his new cookbook.
“Baco: Vivid Recipes From the Heart of Los Angeles” (Chronicle Books) is by Centeno and Betty Hallock, former deputy food editor of the Los Angeles Times.
The cookbook showcases his imaginative dishes that reflect Los Angeles’ dynamic, exciting food scene today. His dishes are inventive — not in the molecular, shake-your-head kind of way — but in the clash of ingredients and flavors that somehow make potent magic together.
Think “Sauteed Broccolini with Mexican Sriracha and Queso Fresco,” “Coffee-Rubbed Beef Carpaccio with Juniper Tarragon Vinaigrette and Crispy Shallots,” “Hand-Torn Pasta with Yuzu, Dashi, and Brown Butter,” and “Pistachio Cheesecake Custards with Matcha Sugar and Kataifi.”
The grits take longer to make, but much of that time is — yes — just in soaking. You begin by combining grits and water, and allowing the mixture to soak anywhere from a few hours to overnight. As Centeno writes, “Stone-ground grits have to absorb at least four times their volume in water to become creamy, and this takes time.”
After that first soak, you bring the grits to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour to absorb more water. Then, you add more water, and finish the cooking just before you’re ready to eat.
You do have to do some stirring, but it’s not as laborious as making polenta on the stovetop. And the results? Very creamy grits that are even a little fluffy.
The grits get topped with the last of the season’s cherry tomatoes, which get blistered in a saute pan with shallots, chives and lemon zest. Making a quick pickle of serrano chiles takes no time flat. They do carry fairly scorching heat, so you try one before you add too many to your bowl of grits. Or for less heat, you can opt to pickle jalapenos instead.
The real flavor bomb is the sunflower-miso tahini. It’s got more oomph than store-bought jarred tahini. It’s intensely nutty with a profusion of toasted sunflower and sesame seeds ground up into it. A dollop of miso adds a jot of umami to the tahini that has the texture almost of fresh-ground peanut butter.
I cut the recipe below in half; but even so, I ended up with am ample amount of tahini left over. Centeno likes to use the leftovers as a dressing for a leafy salad or mixed into yogurt with granola and honey. Since it reminded me a little of satay sauce, I used mine on a cold noodle salad with chicken, cucumbers, cilantro, and tomatoes. It was fabulous.
Creamy Grits with Blistered Tomatoes, Pickled Serrano Chiles, and Sunflower-Miso Tahini
(Serves 4 to 6)
1 cup coarse stone ground grits
4 1/4 cups water
5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
4 serrano chiles, cut into thin slices (or jalapenos, if you like less heat)
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
12 ounces cherry tomatoes, preferably Sweet 100’s or other vine-ripened variety
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup sunflower-miso tahini (recipe follows)
8 leaves basil, torn
Combine the grits and 3 cups of the water in a medium saucepan. Cover and let soak at room temperature for several hours. Skim and discard any chaff that has risen to the surface.
Bring the grits (and their soaking water) to a boil, covered, over high heat, then immediately turn off the heat. Let the grits stand, covered for 1 hour.
Return the saucepan to low heat; stir the grits and add 1 cup water. Cook the grits, stirring occasionally so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan or burn (try to keep the sides of the pan clean), until porridge-like and creamy, about 30 minutes. Stir in the butter and Pecorino and season with salt to taste. Remove from the heat.
Put the chiles in a heatproof bowl. Put the remaining 1/4 cup water, the vinegar, and the sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and carefully pour the boiling vinegar mixture over the chiles. Set aside to cool.
Mix the shallot, chives, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Set aside.
Put the tomatoes in a dry frying pan, drizzle with the oil, and set the pan over high heat. Cook until the tomatoes are charred and burst, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove from the heat. Add the shallot-chive-zest mixture and toss together.
Divide the grits among shallow bowls. Place the tomato mixture on top of the grits, dividing it evenly. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of tahini over each bowl and scatter with the torn basil and pickled serrano chiles. Serve immediately.
(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup white sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons white miso
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup avocado or olive oil
Toast the sunflower seeds in a small, dry frying pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer sunflower seeds to a bowl, and set aside.
Toast the sesame seeds in the same frying pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Put the sunflower seeds and sesame seeds in a food processor and blend to a coarse, crumbly paste. Add the miso and sugar and process until well combined. With the processor running, slowly pour in the oil and process until the mixture is a smooth paste, stopping and scraping down the sides if necessary. Store in a lidded jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Adapted from “Baco” by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock
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