Not long ago, my editor mentioned in passing that her favorite thing to eat is shrimp and grits. Suddenly, and for reasons as mysterious as they are inexplicable, I was struck by a consuming desire to write about shrimp and grits.
Fortunately, as with practically everyone who has ever had it, I happen to like shrimp and grits. I still remember the first time I tried it: It was at a little neighborhood bistro in Richmond, Virginia, perhaps 30 years ago. Despite living only a few hours from South Carolina, where the dish originated and was popularized, I had not even heard of it at the time.
I was instantly intrigued. Soft, creamy grits topped with highly spiced, perfectly prepared shrimp? It sounded amazing. And it was. It was one of those dishes that you know you are going to be ordering for the rest of your life.
I don't recall ever trying to cook it before. But for the sake of my editor I decided to make the best, richest and creamiest shrimp and grits that I possibly could.
And then I walked back that idea. I had initially planned to use heavy whipping cream in the grits, but no one needs that many calories in their lives. Half-and-half will be fine, I thought.
It was more than fine. It was spectacular. Frankly, the heavy cream would only have gilded the lily and then drowned it in cream.
Making shrimp and grits is a two-part process. Part one is the grits. Part two, as you have already deduced, is the shrimp.
Usually, grits are made just by pouring hominy (treated cornmeal) into boiling water and cooking it until the corn has absorbed the liquid and become soft and palatable.
But soft and palatable is not good enough for the shrimp and grits I wanted to make. I wanted my grits to have oomph, to have pizzazz. I wanted them so good that it would be an insult to call them grits.
I began with stone-ground grits, which are to grits what whole-grain flour is to all-purpose flour. It includes the outer part of the kernel, the part that gets stuck in your teeth when you eat popcorn. This process gives the grits more texture, but that is less important than the fact that it also gives them a richer taste of corn.
More significantly, I did not boil them in water. Good cooks know that grains always taste better when they are cooked in a flavorful stock, so I used chicken broth for half of my cooking liquid. The other half was half-and-half.
That's the part that could have been heavy cream, but let's not be ridiculous. The half-and-half made the grits rich and creamy enough, especially once I stirred in some sharp cheddar cheese.
The grits were remarkable on their own, but they are only half a dish. I wanted the other half, the shrimp half, to be as good as the grits.
Naturally, I started with bacon.
I rendered a couple of slices of diced, thick-cut bacon and used the bacon fat to cook minced onion, celery and green pepper. Yes, that is a New Orleans combination of ingredients, not South Carolina, but they know how to cook shrimp in New Orleans, too.
Next, I tossed some shrimp in my own mixture of celery salt, paprika, cayenne pepper and black pepper, and sautéed them with the bacon-scented vegetables.
I sprinkled it all with a couple of tablespoons of flour, and stirred it to make a quick roux. All it needed then was more chicken stock to create a thick and ridiculously delicious sauce.
But don't just take my word for it. I gave some to my shrimp-and-grits-loving editor. She tasted it and, with a big smile on her face, said, "It's perfect."
SHRIMP AND GRITS
Yield: 4 servings
2 1/2 cups plus 3/4 cup chicken stock, divided
2 1/2 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/8 teaspoons black pepper, divided
1 cup grits, preferably stone-ground
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
1/3 cup green pepper, diced small
1/3 cup onion, diced small
1/2 cup celery, diced small
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1. In a large saucepan over high heat, combine 2 1/2 cups of the chicken stock and the half-and-half. Add butter, salt and 1 teaspoon pepper, and bring to a boil. Stir in grits and return to a boil. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cook 40 to 50 minutes until done, stirring frequently. Scrape bottom of pot when stirring to keep grits from sticking. Grits are done when bubbles turn big, like volcanic magma or hot mud pools, or when they have the texture of wet mashed potatoes. Remove from heat. Add cheese and stir until thoroughly combined. Cover to keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon until crispy. Remove bacon pieces with a spoon and reserve, leaving bacon grease in pan. Add green pepper, onion and celery to the pan and sauté until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.
3. Combine celery salt, paprika, cayenne and remaining 1/8 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl, and sprinkle over shrimp; toss until evenly coated. Add shrimp and vegetable oil to pan and sauté until shrimp is nearly pink and curled. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add remaining 3/4 cup chicken stock and cook, stirring, until liquid thickens.
4. To serve, spoon shrimp and sauce over grits, and top with reserved crispy bacon.
Per serving: 774 calories; 42 g fat; 24 g saturated fat; 290 g cholesterol; 44 g protein; 55 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,355 mg sodium; 433 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman