Creamy Grits with Crispy Leeks, Leek Jus, and Cilantro-Epazote Pesto – Recipe

 Creamy Grits with Crispy Leeks, Leek Jus, and Cilantro-Epazote Pesto
Creamy Grits with Crispy Leeks, Leek Jus, and Cilantro-Epazote Pesto

Breakfast for dinner doesn't have to be just pancakes or eggs and toast. I grew up in the South, and was always appalled to watch folks mix together waffles, bacon, maple syrup and everything else on their plate. Thirty years later, I think that mixing sweet, savory and salty flavors is pure genius.

Today's dish explores that idea, with creamy grits, crispy fried leeks, a leek jus with morita peppers and honey, cilantro-epazote pesto, an egg, sunny side up, and a bit of queso fresco. This would be more of a Southwestern spin on that Southern idea.

Grits are one of the great breakfast foods. If you have made polenta before, you've also made grits – there is no real difference, unless you are talking lye-processed hominy grits, which are much less common. Some folks argue about whether or one is coarser or finer, white or yellow but mainly it is a distinction without a definitive difference. Cornmeal is simply whisked into lots of boiling water, and then simmered until smooth, soft and creamy. If you like, you can replace some of the water with milk, and/or add cheese to enrich.

I handled the leeks in an interesting way here. We fry up a big batch of them until crispy. Some are reserved for the final dish, and the rest are then simmered with morita peppers, extracting all of that caramelized flavor to make the jus. I just recently learned about moritas – they are smoked and dried red jalapenos. So basically chipotles, but not packed in adobo. You get the opportunity to get all the pepper flavor and smoke without the extraneous tomatoey flavors in the canned sauce. And let me tell you, breathing in deep from a bag of morita peppers is a transporting experience. Wow.

The cilantro-epazote pesto was a pure experiment. I thought maybe the epazote flavor would be overpowering, and I would only be able to use a tiny bit as an accent. Surprisingly, that wasn't the case. It was present and very appetizing, but not over the top.

Creamy Grits with Crispy Leeks, Leek Jus, and Cilantro-Epazote Pesto
Vegetarian and gluten-free; not vegan
Serves 2

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 2 tablespoons pepitas, toasted
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves, cleaned
  • 4 epazote leaves
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 3 leeks, white parts only, halved lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, sliced thinly
  • 2 morita peppers or other smoked pepper of your choice, briefly toasted in a dry skillet
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 organic eggs
  • 2 ounces queso fresco or other cheese of your choice
  1. Bring the 3 cups of water and 1 cup of milk to a boil. Whisk in the grits in a thin stream, stirring continuously. Add a couple big pinches of salt. Reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. You will notice a distinct change where they go from being "gritty" to creamy.  Add more water as necessary if they are getting dry before that happens. Anytime after they turn creamy, they are ready to serve. Taste and add salt as needed.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the pepitas, cilantro, epazote, 2 tablespoons of canola oil and a pinch of salt in a mini food processor, and process until it forms a coarse, pesto-like consistency. You might need a little more oil. Taste and adjust salt.
  3. Heat a very large, preferably cast-iron skilet over a high flame. Add 1/4 cup of oil and heat for a moment. Add the leeks and a big pinch of salt and fry, turning only very occasionally, until they are mostly deep brown. Remove about two tablespoons of them two paper towels and season with salt. As they cool, the should become crisp.
  4. Return the pan to a medium flame (with the rest of the leeks still in it), and deglaze the pan with 1 cup of water, scraping well to get all the flavorful bits. Add the morita peppers and the honey and whisk. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook five minutes, adding more water if needed.
  5. Using a fine sieve and pressing well, transfer the liquid to a very small saucepan and keep warm. Dispose of the solids. Reduce or add liquid as necessary to produce a thin jus with just a hint of body. Taste and adjust seasoning. We'd like a balance of savory from the leeks, salt, smoke and heat, and sweetness from the honey.
  6. In the original skillet, add a little more oil and fry off two eggs. Cover so that the whites cook while the yolk remains runny. Or you could use poached eggs.
  7. To serve, put a helping of the grits in each bowl and make a well. Fill the well with the poached egg. Top with the crispy leeks and pour a couple tablespoons of the jus around the edge. Add a tablespoon or so of the pesto and a small piece of queso fresco.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, December 31st, 2009 in Breakfast, Experiments, Gluten-Free or modifiable, Main Courses, Recipes.

11 Responses to “Creamy Grits with Crispy Leeks, Leek Jus, and Cilantro-Epazote Pesto – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    December 31, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    Michael, where do you find fresh epazote? I’ve never been able to get it here in New England, and I’ve heard that the dried stuff is flavorless. Thanks, and Happy New Year!

  2. Reply
    December 31, 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    This sounds fantastic! I’ve been considering making queso fresco but didn’t have a reason to do so before, and we have an abundance of leeks from our CSA right now that needed a more interesting treatment. I’ve never used epazote before, though, and am not sure where I can get it. A field trip may be in order.

  3. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    December 31, 2009 at 7:39 pm #

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    @anne To find fresh epazote, you need to track down a good Mexican grocery store. If they don't have it, ask and they probably will know who does. It also apparently is easy to grow. I'm sure dried is pointless.

  4. Reply
    January 2, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    This looks delicious–comfort food at it’s finest!

  5. Reply
    January 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    This sounds wonderful! I just discovered your blog this morning (post on salt) and now I see this, too. My father was born and raised in Alabama, so although I’m a Northern girl, I’ve got that yen for grits and other things Southern. And I just so happen to have leeks in my fridge right now. You’ve inspired me to do some fiddling around.

  6. Reply
    January 24, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Hi Michael–

    I’m glad you confirmed my suspicion that polenta and grits are basically the same thing. (On a bit of a side note, the Southern Foodways Alliance recently published an article on how the lack of niacin in grits and polenta led to rickets in both poor Italians and Southerners.) The recipe looks fabulous–we will have to try it.

    I suspect I’ll need to find a substitute for epazote, though–any suggestions?

  7. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    January 24, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

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    @Jami – There isn't really any substitute for epazote, it is a very unique flavor. For this dish, I'd probably just make a straight cilantro pesto instead – still gonna be delicious.

  8. Reply
    August 1, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    Since it’s now August, I can report on my experiment this year: growing Epazote. I planted some seeds along with my tomato starts inside in mid-March; it was about 10″ tall by late May/early June when I planted things outside. I shoved it in a back corner of a planter box, where it got shaded by peas for the first 5 weeks, but by mid-July it was getting decent sun for about 5 hours a day. It’s done fine. It’s a nice healthy (not very attractive) plant about 4 feet high, with enough leaves for all my epazote needs for the year, I expect. I expect it’ll go to seed at some point, and I’ll let it self-sow and see whether things come up next year.

    Given this experience, my guess is that the stuff’ll grow anyplace you like in New England. If you start it in spring in a peat-pot, and shove it in the ground where there’s some sun, you’ll get a plant!

    Now I just have to try the grits, etc., recipe!

  9. Reply
    January 25, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    What? But grits…ARE…hominy. Isn’t that what makes them grits? Otherwise you just have polenta. I’m so confused.
    Where are you from that hominy grits are rare? I live in California and they are in every grocery store.

    • Reply
      January 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      Nope, not so. You’ve got your plain grits and your hominy grits. See this page for example: link to

  10. Reply
    January 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Well now I have to go rearrange my entire worldview. 🙂

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