Functionally and nutritionally, corn maintains a high status in my kitchen. Fresh off the cob during peak summer farm harvest, pulverized into flour for tortillas, engorged and chewy as hominy, or stone-ground into grits.
While canoeing with the Quapaw Canoe Co. early one winter, several years ago, every camp evening saw an intricate or novel meal. One of those meals was a tofu-tempeh grits meal in the Dutch oven. During the first several bites, I remained cautious but open to the new combination of protein and vegetables, keeping company with an enormous, golden porridge of grits in the same pot. Wolfie - neé Chris Staudinger - the evening’s cook, packed an incredible amount of flavor into one pot, and fed something like eight to ten people. Furthermore, grits pack and carry well. They are compact, and easily packed.
Just before embarking on another Mississippian river adventure this year, I found a copy of the oldest-known outdoor American cookbooks in a treasured bookshop in Biddeford, Maine. I am reading all about the previous methods of campfire cookery and I am amazed at the techniques and instruction (sometimes lack thereof) in its pages. I paired this resource with the thoughtful and thorough canoe cookery of Mark River (Quapaw Canoe Co. river guide), whose methods of coating any dried grains (rice, oats, etc.) and using the Dutch oven taught me a lot - and that I have much to learn, yet.
This bacon-caramelized onion and pepper grits recipe from Little Chebeague Island, off the coast of Portland, Maine, is inspired by Wolfie’s tofu-tempeh grits in 2013, and Mark River’s methods from the Rivergator Celebratory Expedition in the Spring of 2017.
I prefer slab bacon - like Vermont Smoke & Cure’s uncured, maple-brined, cob and maple smoked mini slab - because it is better (and better-for-you?) version of the salt pork and lard from those hundred-year-old recipes.
12 oz slab bacon (avoid wet brine, it’s extra water which means extra weight)
1 yellow onion, sliced lengthwise
1 sweet Italian frying pepper (try a glossy, red Jimmy Nardello)
1 sweet bell pepper (the darker the color, the more nutrients)
1.5 c. stone-ground grits (for this recipe, we used Charleston Favorites white grits)
1-2 c. cheese, shredded (we prefer extra sharp cheddar)
1 sprig parsley
1 sprig dill
salt + pepper to taste
Make sure to heat the dutch oven (lid separately, flipped upside down on the coals) until water droplets sizzle. Begin boiling water in separate kettle. No need for butter, the slab bacon has all the oil you need. Cut slab into 1/2” cubes, place in the dutch. Stir occasionally to brown the bacon and render fat. Remove cooked bacon from the oven, replace with onions to caramelize in rendered bacon fat. Add pinch of salt, two pinches black pepper, cook until translucent. Remove oven from heat for 5-10 minutes, cover.
While the onions cook, roughly chop bell pepper and frying pepper. Return oven to coals, stir ingredients and add bacon back to the oven. When peppers have softened and begun to brown, add half the grits, stirring to coat. Once coated, add remaining half until coated. With water already boiling, slowly add a little at a time, allowing grits to cook between pours with the lid on, charcoals placed atop. Cook until desired consistency, and fold grated cheese into grits. Remove from coals, add dill, parsley, and very likely: more salt and pepper. *For an added richness, a dash of heavy cream or milk would make a great, buttery companion flavor. Serves 4.
Chris Battaglia is a passionate canoer, explorer, artist, chef, and GSI Outdoors ambassador. He spent six weeks paddling from St. Louis to New Orleans on an expedition filled with cooking, stay tuned for more of Chris' recipes from his adventures. For more camp cookery exploration recipes, and good times, follow Chris on instagram at @chris___battaglia and online at villagevitals.com