“An inexpensive, simple and thoroughly digestible food [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about.” –proclaimed The Charleston News and Courier in 1952.
Leave it to us Southerners to espouse that steaming bowls of our beloved grits distributed throughout this planet could encourage world peace. Quite ironic, coming from Charlestonians who still refer to that April 12th and 13th commotion at Fort Sumter back in 1861 as the “great unpleasantness,” as if it happened last week. But whether it be for breakfast, lunch or dinner, eating grits is practically a religion in the South and we take the business of grit-making very seriously. (South Carolina even declared grits to be its official state food in 1976!)
So, one of the things I most looked forward to on our first visit to this insanely beautiful port city (besides feasting my eyes on its Palladian splendor) was, of course, eating authentic shrimp and grits. Lowcountry cuisine is traditionally associated with the type of cooking that reflects the region’s rich estuary system and its vibrant convergence of Caribbean, French, Spanish, British and African culinary influences. Charleston, with its tidal basin and thick marshlands, enjoys the concentration of Lowcountry wealth with the prolific bounty of shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters. Quite unique to the coastal area prior to the days of refrigeration.
Shrimp and grits is probably considered the Holy City’s most iconic embodiment of Lowcountry fare and was historically a simple breakfast for coastal fishermen during the shrimping season (May through December). These “breakfast shrimp” were cooked in a little bacon fat or butter and poured over a pot of hot grits. Not a bad way to start your morning, if you ask me.
But after the noted food critic, Craig Claiborne, in a 1985 New York Times article launched the “coming out party of shrimp and grits,” the humble beginning was no longer relegated to the first meal of the day and opened this revered dish to all kinds of innovative personal interpretations.
As I was developing this recipe, my husband, who does not like grits (a fact that my mother, a true Southern belle, even after 18 years of our being married, has chosen to block out), once again issued a challenge, reminding me (unnecessarily), that it’s a tall order to impress him with the whole grits thing. You know me….I do love his challenges. This is my take on that famous Southern comfort classic – pan-seared succulent fruits of the sea accompanied by a buttery sauce that pools around the divine cheesy side of grits. Suffice it to say, Adam is now officially converted to the happy land of grits lovers.
Shrimp and Grits
- 1-1/2 pounds (12 to 15 count) shrimp
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- Pinch of sugar
- Pinch of ground red cayenne pepper
- 4 slices thick-cut bacon, large-diced
- 1 small onion, peeled and diced
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and diced
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 recipe Creamy Cheese Grits (see link below)
- Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving the tails attached. Place the shrimp in a bowl and place the shells in a saucepan. Rinse the shrimp under cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Place the shrimp in a single layer on a baking sheet and season both sides of each shrimp with a little salt and pepper. Refrigerate uncovered for 30 minutes.
- To the shrimp shells, add the stock, bay leaves, sugar, cayenne and season with some salt and pepper. Bring to a lazy boil over medium heat; reduce the heat and let the stock simmer until reduced by half, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crispy, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a paper-towel-lined bowl and set aside. Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of the rendered fat. Cook the shrimp in batches until they curl and turn pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Strain the shrimp stock (discarding the solids) into the sauté pan and scrape up any browned bits in the pan with a wooden spoon. Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of the stock with the flour in a small bowl then whisk into the pan. Cook for several minutes until the sauce has thickened; stir in the butter until melted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the shrimp. Check for seasoning. Serve over hot grits and garnish with the bacon bits.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
Planning: You can make the grits a day ahead. Gently rewarm, adding some warmed milk or water to thin if too thick.
Product Purity: I keep frozen shrimp in the freezer. They’re just as tasty as fresh and are super convenient – simply thaw under cool, running water and proceed with the recipe.
Presentation: Garnish your bowl with crumbled bacon bits, snipped chives and lemon wedges on the side.