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Cheesy grits steal mealtime show

My older son, in his own words, loves “little birds.”

That’s how we graduated from roasting smallish broiler chickens to a Cornish game hen for each diner to a dozen quails for Sunday supper. We prepared the quails according to a recipe from Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites” — ringing a vat of polenta with a “volcano style” depression holding a sauce of the birds’ pan drippings.

Actually, to my son’s slight disappointment, we didn’t manage to mold the polenta into anything resembling a volcano. Given that the cornmeal mush itself was as hot as molten lava straight off the stovetop, it would have needed more time to cool and somewhat solidify than I was willing to spare at mealtime. Fresh from the oven, the quails were deliciously greasy and deeply flavored, but with each minute their delicate joint tissues congealed, making them a challenge to dismember.

Still, the polenta — simmered with a Parmesan rind and topped with sautéed morels — was the star of the meal. This humble side dish reassured us with its familiarity but kept our taste buds engaged.

The simplest things, of course, are like that. Food writer Daniel Newman acknowledged this fact last year in a column about appetizers that are better than main courses.

In this case, it’s cornmeal mush souped up with butter and cheese and larded with mushrooms and sausage. Don’t be put off by the description of “grits risotto.” It’s just a fancy, fusion name for soft polenta.

While I think sausage is superfluous in this recipe, meat does have a way of convincing diners that it qualifies as a main dish. I’d eliminate it, though, to give the mushrooms center stage. And if you have a Parmesan rind, the flavor diffuses more completely through the polenta than does grated cheese, which is still a lovely finishing touch.

Tribune News Service photo

Grits Risotto

1 cup stone-ground grits, polenta or coarse cornmeal

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons chicken, fish, veal or vegetable stock, divided

3 tablespoons butter, divided (2 tablespoons cut into small cubes)

Salt, to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms

Black pepper, to taste

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 small shallots or 1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced

12 ounces cooked, high-quality sausage, cut into cubes

6 ounces Parmesan cheese

In a medium or large pot over medium-high heat, combine the grits or cornmeal and 4 cups of the stock. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until all liquid has been absorbed and cornmeal is soft, for 20 to 35 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the butter and add salt, if necessary.

Meanwhile, remove stems from the mushrooms and discard. Lightly brush any dirt off mushrooms and cut caps into 1/8-inch slices.

Heat a large, heavy pan, preferably cast iron, until it is very hot. Add the oil. Add mushrooms and sauté for 30 seconds, sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste while cooking. Add the garlic and shallots, but keep stirring so they do not color or burn. After 1 minute, remove from heat and add remaining 2 tablespoons stock to stop cooking. Add remaining 2 tablespoons cubed butter and stir continuously until it is melted and thoroughly coats mushroom mix.

Mix grits or cornmeal with the sausage, shiitakes and 3 ounces of the cheese. Spoon onto plates and top with remaining cheese.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

— Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from “The Frog and the Redneck Cookbook,” by Jimmy Sneed.