Food & Drink

The Grits Stay on the Menu

Other dishes may come and go, but the baked grits at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill will never change—and that’s just how chef Frank Stitt likes it

Photo: Christopher Hirsheimer

The baked grits at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill are so good they make people angry. “One time we briefly took the grits off the menu, and people felt like we had taken their child away from them,” says chef Frank Stitt, who opened Highlands in 1982. “They were irate that we would be so foolhardy.”

Now permanently on the menu as Stone Ground Baked Grits: Benton’s Country Ham, Mushrooms, Thyme, the dish inspires fierce loyalty among regulars, reverence from newbies, and for Stitt, an earnest playfulness. “Highlands might be thought of as this kind of serious restaurant where people get dressed up and have great champagne,” he says. “But then there is this grits soufflé, a way of calming down, using humble ingredients as our stars, and having a little sense of humor.”

Stitt has received every accolade a chef can hope for, including being named a James Beard Foundation “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage.” But before all the honors, in the early 1980s, he was a young chef hoping to elevate down-to-earth Southern ingredients with the French cooking techniques he had learned from cooking in Europe in the 1970s. Stitt grew up in Cullman, Alabama, and recalls childhood summer lunches of creamed corn, boiled okra, sliced tomatoes, and cornbread from locally milled grain. But by the time he opened Highlands, stale and overly processed corn meal and “instant” grits were the norm. “Ninety-nine percent of commercial grits tasted like bland sawdust,” he says.

This was before “farm-to-table” was a catchphrase, and Stitt was on his own to locate heirloom ingredients. The fledgling chef walked a few blocks from his new restaurant to the Golden Temple health food store, his first source of organic stone-ground grits. (Today, he works with nearby Coosa Valley milling to grind grits to his liking.) Flavorful grits in hand, Stitt tinkered with a French soufflé technique, stirring together cheese, butter, and an egg that helps give the grits literal lift. It’s the same technique he uses today, and it creates a scrumptious fluff. “The grits happen to be a wonderful medium for expressing other Southern ingredients,” he says. “We add a little julienne of country ham, some mushrooms, sherry vinegar, and fresh thyme. It’s a lush combination with the buttery Parmesan.”

From time to time, apprentice chefs have attempted to fuss up the grits with personal flourishes. “We had one young cook who felt they should do their own interpretation, and they started adding garlic. All hell broke loose when I found out,” Stitt says, with a laugh. “That was decades ago, and a few people here still remember and occasionally remind me of how I reacted.”

Some things must never change. Stitt sees it nearly every night at Highlands: As soon as diners sit down to a white tablecloth, someone in the group orders grits for the table. The plate lands, everyone gets a fork, and for a moment, no one is angry about anything.



  • For the grits

    • 4 cups water, preferably spring water

    • 1 tsp. Kosher salt

    • 1 cup yellow stone-ground grits, preferably organic

    • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature

    • ¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

    • Freshly ground white pepper to taste

    • 1 large egg, beaten

  • For the sauce

    • ½ cup white wine

    • ¼ cup sherry vinegar, or to taste

    • 2 shallots, minced

    • 1 bay leaf

    • 1 dried red chile pepper

    • 1 to 2 ounces country ham (trimmings, end pieces, and scraps from the shank are fine)

    • 1 tbsp. heavy cream

    • 8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

    • 2 tbsp. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

    • Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

    • Juice of ½ lemon, or to taste

    • Hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholula

    • 1 tbsp. olive oil

    • 2 thin slices country ham or prosciutto, cut into julienne strips

    • ½ cup chanterelle, morel, shiitake, or oyster mushrooms, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces

    • 1 shallot, minced

    • Thyme leaves for garnish


  1. “This signature appetizer is simple Southern with a little finesse. The grits are baked in individual ramekins, then served with a buttery Parmesan sauce, garnished with wild mushrooms and strips of country ham. This is pure comfort, warm and homey with a soothing contrast in textures. Organic stone-ground corn grits are essential—don’t even think about trying this with ‘quick’ grits!”—Frank Stitt

  2. In a large heavy saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil. Stirring with a wooden spoon, add the grits in a slow, steady stream and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened and tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the heat and add the butter, Parmigiano, and white pepper, stirring until combined. Add the egg and stir to incorporate. 

  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°. Butter eight to ten 4- to 6-ounce ramekins.

  4. Divide the grits among the buttered ramekins, place in a baking pan, and add enough hot water to the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for about 20 minutes longer, or until the tops are crusty and beginning to brown.

  5. Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan, combine the wine, vinegar, shallots, bay leaf, chile pepper, and ham and bring to a boil. Cook until only 1 tbsp. of liquid remains. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cream. Whisk in the butter bit by bit, adding each new piece as the previous one is incorporated.

  6. Strain the sauce into a saucepan. Add the Parmigiano and season with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce to taste. Keep warm.

  7. Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the julienned ham, mushrooms, and shallot, and cook until the mushrooms are barely tender, 3 to 4 minutes. 

  8. Unmold the grits onto serving plates and turn browned side up. Ladle a little sauce around the grits and top with the mushrooms and ham. Garnish with thyme leaves.

  9. Note: The grits can be baked up to 1 hour ahead and set aside at room temperature. Reheat on a baking sheet in a 400°F oven until warmed through.

Excerpted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table by Frank Stitt (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2004. Photograph by Christopher Hirsheimer.