My friend Liz, who lives in Chicago (and that’s totally how I imagine what it’s like for her to live there whenever I think of her — full of sequined female prisoners wearing tap shoes), e-mailed me the other day to share her shock and horror at discovering that her Midwestern cohorts have never tried — nay, have never even heard of — shrimp and grits. She asked me for a recipe, knowing I’m a die-hard fan of the dish. I started drafting a lengthy treatise in response, when I realized — wait, I have a blog now. If she needs to know, then the world should know. Behold, the mighty power of the internet.
First and foremost, the essence to any truly delicious serving of shrimp and grits is, not surprisingly, the grits. I am fastidiously dogmatic in this belief that you can’t just use any old grits. It’s kind of like making toast with a cardboard cutout of a slice of bread. Not only does it make no sense, it tastes awful and you feel kind of stupid afterwards for thinking that it wouldn’t.
As a sidenote, as my blog unfolds, you’ll notice that I have hard, fast and frequently irrational culinary rules (e.g., Biscuitwheels — that’s my CB handle — doesn’t eat Ethiopian food, because it doesn’t make me feel (a) more worldly nor (b) less hungry nor (c) less angry). Buying the right type of grits is one of those fundamental culinary tenets of my life. If you learn anything from today’s post, it’s that you can substitute or adjust just about anything from my recipe, but if you misstep on the grits, you might as well have bought yourself a bag of Cream of Wheat and some popcorn shrimp from the Pirate and called it a day.
But I digress. For the longest time, my basic rule was this: if you get south of the Mason-Dixon line, go to a grocery store whose name begins with a P and ends in a “Wiggly” (or any grocer with the word Otis, Taylor or Dixie in the name) and buy yourself the grits that come in a muslin bag. The cotton muslin cloth bag is key here. There will be some nondescript mill stamped on this bag, but honestly, the name of that mill doesn’t really matter. As long as there’s a fine layer of corn dust on the surface of the cloth bag containing the grits, you should have the right kind. Anything in a box or labeled “quick” will get you nowhere. It’s true because while you’re making your purchase, I’m outside filling your gas tank with sawdust. Punish the unworthy, my grandma always says.
True aficionados of milled corn will appreciate a discovery my father and I made on the subject of grits. A few months ago, we found a grit and corn visionary, Glenn Roberts. Mr. Roberts is the proprieter of Anson Mills, an organic mill that employs antebellum techniques in producing true, classic stone-ground grits. Anson Mill grits make beautiful music, despite the fact that they aren’t sold in an old-timey market (or a modern market that uses a cartoon pig as its mascot), they don’t bag said grits in muslin bags, and — gasp — they’re organic.
I contacted Mr. Roberts a few months ago, when I was still considering individually bagging 125 cotton mini-sacks of grits as my wedding favors (common sense set in and I diverted to home-roasted pralines, my dad claiming that “Not everyone would truly appreciate the Anson handiwork.”). Mr. Roberts informed me that they regularly stock their wares at Rosewood Market in Columbia, South Carolina, and I sent my dad there on a fact-finding mission. Over the holidays, he arrived with two sacks of grits in tow — one of Anson Mills’ blue corn variety and their regular yellow Antebellum Coarse Grits.
A couple of things to note — these grits, like a good round of golf, require an infuriating amount of patience, dexterity and attention in order to extract their flavor. The Anson Mills website is explicit on this point. They’re fussy because they care, and because they care, you must care, or you can take your money elsewhere and buy inferior grits. Seriously. The Anson Mills corn product takes almost two hours to cook. As a serving suggestion, as you’re rounding the final 15-20 minutes of your cooking time, if you swirl in a good portion of heavy cream and add a few pats of butter to smooth out the edges, the flavor that emanates from these grits is so divine that you will literally feel like encasing yourself in a bathtub full of them. No lie, they’re that good. Oh, and these grits also aren’t pasteurized, which means you’ll have to store them in your freezer or use them right away. Of course, this is just another wrinkle in the most worthwhile activity you may have engaged in in a while (I know you spent last weekend watching that “Jon and Kate Plus 8” marathon for six hours straight while feeding yourself cereal straight from the box. Don’t lie.)
I have one last note and throwback to my Asian roots. Recently, I’ve taken to simmering my grits in my rice cooker. I find that when I do that, the grits take a tenderness without requiring the full amount of heavy cream and butter I usually use. You know, so I can maintain my girlish figure.
I say all of this to impart on you the importance of a decent bag of grits. But regardless of how you obtain your most essential ingredient, here’s my recipe, for your experimenting pleasure:
- 1½ pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 cup stone-ground white or yellow grits (see diatribe, above)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3 vine-ripened tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup flour
- ½ cup butter
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 cup milk or heavy cream
- 1 cup shrimp broth*
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
- 2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning (or other Cajun/Creole seasoning)
- Salt and coarse ground pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
- Prepare grits according to mill's instructions for 4-6 servings, adding approximately ½ cup heavy cream and ¼ cup butter, cut into chunks, in the last 15 minutes of simmering the grits.
- While grits are simmering, heat olive oil in a large saute pan or wok over medium-high heat.
- Add garlic, celery, onions and green bell pepper, a light sprinkle of salt and pepper and saute 2-3 minutes until onions begin to turn translucent.
- Add tomatoes and saute 1-2 more minutes until tomatoes are soft.
- Turn off heat and remove pan from burner. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium low heat.
- When butter is completely melted (but not foaming), add flour and stir well, forming a paste.
- If the flour and butter mixture doesn't seem like a thick paste, sprinkle a touch more flour and incorporate completely.
- Add ground mustard and continue stirring.
- Add milk, a little at a time, stirring vigorously to incorporate milk into a thick white sauce. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
- Boil for 1 minute and reduce heat to medium or medium low, simmering.
- Add shrimp broth and stir to incorporate.
- Let sauce thicken slightly, then add the vegetables, tomato paste, Old Bay and red pepper flakes.
- If there does not appear to be enough sauce, add more shrimp broth, and tomato paste.
- Turn heat to low and allow sauce to reduce, about 15-20 minutes.
- When the sauce appears to be thickened, increase heat to medium-high and add shrimp, stirring to incorporate.
- Shrimp will cook in the sauce as you return the sauce to a boil.
- When shrimp are completely opaque and curled, remove the pan from heat. Spoon over grits; sprinkle cilantro on top.
- Serve immediately with cornbread and love.
- Note: I make my own shrimp broth from the shells of the shrimp; if you have questions on this, leave a comment and I'll post how you make it. Otherwise, chicken broth works fine.