Baked Grits with Country Ham and Oyster Mushrooms

It’s debatable whether Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, is the most innovative chef in the South, but surely none of his creative dishes illustrates better the intelligent juxtaposition of Southern ingredients and French technique than these glorious grits ramekins topped with a mixture of pungent wild mushrooms and country ham and served with a spicy butter sauce. Yes, the dish takes a little time and effort to prepare, but it not only shows the sophisticated role grits can play in modern Southern cookery but also provides a truly elegant appetizer or luncheon dish that will have guests raving with joy.

Ingredients

For the grits

  • 4 cups water
  • teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup freshly grated genuine Parmesan cheese
  • 1 large egg, beaten

For the Sauce

  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup finely diced country ham
  • 2 scallions (white parts only), finely chopped
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 dried red chile pepper
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) butter, cut into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For the Topping

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 thin slices country ham, cut into strips
  • ½ pound fresh oyster mushrooms, cut into slices
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Sprigs of fresh thyme for garnish

Method

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease four small ramekins with butter and set aside.

To make the grits, combine the water and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Gradually stir in the grits, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring constantly, till the grits are thick and creamy, 15 to 20 minutes. Scrape into a large bowl, add the butter, black pepper, and cheese, and stir till well blended. Add the egg and stir till well blended. Scrape equal amounts of the mixture into the prepared ramekins, place the ramekins in a baking pan, add enough water to come halfway up the outside of the ramekins, and bake till set, about 20 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the pan and let stand.

To make the sauce, combine the wine, vinegar, ham, scallions, thyme, bay leaf, and chile pepper in a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, and cook till the liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon. Reduce the heat to low and add the cream, stirring. Whisk in the pieces of butter till well blended, then strain into a bowl, discarding the solids. Add the cheese, salt and pepper, and lemon juice, stir well, and keep the sauce warm.

To make the topping, heat the oil in a skillet over moderate heat, add the ham, mushrooms, and garlic, and cook, stirring, till the mushrooms are softened, about 10 minutes.

To serve, invert the ramekins on serving plates, ladle sauce around each, and top each with equal amounts of the mushroom mixture. Garnish each plate with thyme sprigs and serve immediately.