Quarantine Cuisine: Shrimp and grits
My dearest readers, you are now gaining entrance to a very dear place in my heart––my love for the cuisine of the Lowcountry, the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. I hadn't planned to post a blog about this meal, since it was just a lunchtime, spur-of-the-moment creation, but I couldn't resist after reminding myself of the absolute deliciousness of shrimp and grits.
I moved to the south in 2011 knowing very little about southern food or culture, and part of the joy of my two years in Athens, GA included learning to love southern cuisine, and perhaps no segment of southern food more so than Lowcountry fare.
I took a short trip to Savannah just a few days after arriving in Athens, since I was feeling a bit lonesome in my new home and felt the gnawing need to explore. Once I arrived, I ate at the wonderful Alligator Soul and was introduced to shrimp and grits for the first time. I was changed.
My trip to Charleston with mama in 2016 only supercharged my love of this region's fantastic food.
Ever since my first weeks eating southern food in Georgia, I have been in love with grits. Even while living in the non-grit-eating corners of the land, I have always since had a bag of stone-ground, Carolina grits at the ready. Mom and I order ours on Amazon, and creamy Charlestonian grits make a regular appearance in our breakfast routine.
It was only the other day that I realized that, despite it being one of my favorite dishes of all time, I had never tried my hand at making shrimp and grits! How shameful! I had to change that.
Variations on shrimp and grits are manifold––you can tailor this dish to highlight any number of ingredients. Even the grit cooking methods are dizzyingly diverse. I'm going to give you the Maestro's tried-and-true favorite method of cooking grits, selected from dozens of different methods I've tried.
First off, get the real grits––stone ground, and for the love of God, not instant grits. Amazon carries Palmetto Farms grits, which are great. Anson Mills is another good brand. Even if you don't live in a town where grits are popular, get the real stuff online; you'll thank me.
I take a cup of grits, a cup of water, two cups of whole milk, a cup of half and half, and a couple tablespoons of butter for the initial grit cooking stage. Combine everything in a cold pan and whisk the grits vigorously––the more you whisk, the more starch the grits shed, and therefore the fluffier and creamier your grits will be. Heat over medium-plus heat, whisking regularly, until the mixture starts to just bubble, then reduce heat to low and cover. Continue to whisk regularly.
A few things to note: first, don't salt your grits until you serve them. The grits can't actually take on salt when they are cooking, and adding salt too early can impede moisture absorption, so it's best to wait. Second, don't use chicken broth. Many southern chefs swear by chicken broth instead of water, but to my mind it just makes the grits taste like chicken broth instead of the creamy, cheesy delight they were destined to be.
Once the grits are getting nice and thick, but still slightly soupy (after about 20–30 minutes), you're ready to add some cheese. Cheddar is the standard for southern fare, and the one I'd recommend for a shrimp and grits dinner (or breakfast!), but you can use any number of cheeses. The hard Italian cheeses, such as parmesan or pecorino, are good choices, and I have also been known to include goat cheese in my grits.
Once the cheese has melted after vigorous stirring, season with salt and white pepper. You'll know the grits are ready if they produce a thick and firm but still slightly soupy texture. Avoid drying them out too much, lest they resemble dry mashed potatoes.
For the shrimp, always (as usual!) pick the best shrimp you can find. I love gargantuan shrimp, shell and tail on and uncooked when I purchase them. Once you've prepped the shrimp, removing the shell, the vein, and the tail if you wish,* heat a skillet.
You'll add some kind of chopped fatty pork product. The standard is bacon, but I happened upon some Tasso ham and added it to my D'Artagnan order this week, intending to include it in my grits. Tasso ham isn't actually ham (doesn't come from the pig's leg) but is rather a shoulder cut that is fatty and heavily seasoned. It is a Louisiana specialty, so not Lowcountry, per se, but still an excellent addition to a southern shrimp and grits dish. I added a bit of bacon as well so that I got some additional rendered fat, since the shoulder doesn't have as much as the belly cut. Once your pork product of choice is cooked, remove the pork from the fat, and return the fat to the heat (you can get rid of a little bit of it if it looks like too much).
Combine a bit of butter with the pork fat in the pan and melt. If you'd like, you can add veggies, like onions and peppers, before cooking the shrimp. Today, we just did shrimp! Add the shrimp and cook for a few minutes, making sure to flip each crustacean so it cooks on both sides, until opaque and pink. If you didn't use a seasoned pork product, like Tasso ham, I recommend including appropriate seasonings, such as a Cajun blend (essentially paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, white pepper). Squeeze a little lemon juice toward the end of the cooking for some balancing acidity.
That is literally all you need to do for this masterpiece––pour the grits in a bowl, and spoon the pork atop, and set the shrimp in a visually pleasing manner. For color, I recommend adding some thinly-sliced or shaved green onion, so you at least feel like you have some sort of vegetable on the side!
This was a lunch dish, so we decided against wine. However, I have some awesome new wineries to profile when their shipments arrive!
This weekend we have a post about a fantastic brunch invention, including a brunch cocktail, and some quail. Keep your eyes open!
* Take the tail shells off your damn shrimp. I know it looks more interesting, but nobody wants to sit there and pull tails off of their food. End of rant. :D