Guys, I love shrimp and grits. No, let me say this again, so you hear me really, really clearly on this one: I. Love. Shrimp. And. Grits.
Shrimp and grits was the first truly Southern dish that I made in college. I lived in South Carolina nearly my entire life and didn’t even realize that shrimp and grits were a Lowcountry South Carolina thing. I thought people everywhere ate grits, and surely nothing could make more sense than to have shrimp on top of them. Of course, variations of shrimp and grits abound. My favorite back in college were a creamy, slighty-spiced tomato sauce version made by The Bookstore Cafe in Charleston, which closed years ago. I think one of the former owners now runs Charleston’s Cafe in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
After The Bookstore Cafe shuttered, for years I made shrimp and grits that paid homage to theirs. First, I’d build a creamy Bechamel sauce (a French mother sauce consisting of flour, butter and milk), then flavored it with tomato paste and fresh tomatoes, topping the concoction with sliced green onions and a little crumble of bacon. I poached the shrimp in that sauce to marry together the brininess of the shrimp with the sauce. The end result was a really heavy version that required a lot of careful monitoring on the stove to make sure that the sauce didn’t get too clumpy or overwrought. I’ve spent many a dinner party hunched over my stove, obsessively stirring my shrimp n’ grits.
Over the years, I’ve let go of that heavier, cream-laden version in favor of a lighter shrimp and grits that’s derived from Hominy Grill, one of my favorite restaurants in Charleston.
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I’ve always loved Hominy Grill. It’s a simple, no-frills Lowcountry joint, one that has deservedly attracted national attention. The first time I had their shrimp and grits, I bemoaned it for being relatively sauce-less, consisting only of a few butter-sauteed shrimp, mushrooms, sliced green onions and bacon. Then I realized I could tweak it at home just to give it a bit of sauce and make it a hybrid version with the kind I used to have at Bookstore Cafe (cue rubbing hands together and evil genius laughter).
I made my modified shrimp and grits recently for a brunch play date at our house. I found Hominy Grill’s version of shrimp and grits so freeing to make in front of company — there wasn’t any obsessive stirring, I could chat with my friends and I was able to make the grits well ahead of time. I let the grits warm on the stove while the kids were playing and the adults
drank chatted. Then, once we were ready to eat, all I had to do was throw the shrimp along with a few of my prepped ingredients (chopped tomato, sliced mushrooms, crumbled bacon, and sliced green onions) into a hot pan with some butter. With just a few shakes, a squirt of lemon juice and some seasoning (just salt and pepper), the entire mixture came together in a triumphant, colorful medley within minutes. It’s the best kind of dish for company — simple for the cook, but impressive to the guests.
Lastly, we have to talk about the shrimp. I mean, they’re the star of the show, right? I generally try to find the freshest shrimp possible, but not necessarily the largest. Jumbo shrimp, while beautiful and impressive, aren’t necessary in shrimp and grits. I use 21/30 count shrimp (the count is the number of shrimp per pound, which can tell you a lot about the size — the lower the count, the larger each individual shrimp is). I find the 21/30 count to be plump and juicy enough to be the star of the show, but not so much that they seem freakish on the plate.
I mean, that’s a legitimate worry, right? Oversized shrimp in a universe of tiny, sliced and diced accompaniments?
I shudder at the thought.
- 2 pounds peeled, deveined raw shrimp (21/40 count) (tails on)
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 5 bacon slices
- ½ pound (8 ounces) sliced baby portobello mushrooms
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup thinly sliced green onions
- 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce
- ½ teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)
- ½ teaspoon pepper (plus more to taste)
- 1 cup white grits (not quick-cooking)
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup milk
- 4 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon butter
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Make the grits: rinse grits in cold water to separate husks from grits. Skim water to remove husks, then drain. Place grits (there will be a little water that clings to them) in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add water, milk and butter and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to a medium low and continue to simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened. Cover and turn off burner (Note: as the grits sit, they will solidify. If they are hardened at the time that you want to serve them, fret not. Simply add a cup of water and whisk the grits over medium-low heat to break up any clumps.). Season with salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese to taste.
- While grits are simmering, lay bacon over a foil-lined sheet pan and place in a cold oven. Turn oven on at 350 degrees and let bacon cook for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, remove pan from oven and carefully drain off any bacon fat into a heat-resistant bowl. Return pan to the oven and cook the bacon for 10-15 minutes more until crisp. Remove from oven, drain fat into pan again and remove bacon onto a paper towel-lined plate. After bacon cools, crumble.
- Add 2 tablespoons of bacon fat to a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet and heat over medium until shimmering. Add the garlic and mushrooms to the pan and saute for 1-2 minutes until softened. Toss shrimp in flour, shaking to remove excess, and add to pan. Saute shrimp for 1-2 minutes, then add tomatoes. Cook for another 1-2 minutes until shrimp are pink and curled. Add lemon juice, crumbled bacon, green onions, salt and pepper.
- Spoon grits into four plates. Divide shrimp mixture across the plates. Season with more salt and pepper. Serve immediately.