Can one have travelled to a place one’s never been? Through the miracle of food the answer to that question, it would seem, is “yes.” One of the conceits of this blog is the notion that the cuisine of a place says something more about the place than just what the people who live there happen to eat. By experiencing what they eat one can learn a bit more about them, their history, their culture and about their collective soul. At one level it is a matter of geography. At another it is something about the spirit.
That may sound somewhat ephemeral and unrealistic. It is, however, how we have all first experienced other cultures in the past, isn’t it? Was your introduction to Italy a pizza at a birthday party or a bite from a Roman trattoria? Was your first taste of Japan a walk in Shibuya Crossing or at your local sushi bar?
And so too has Shrimp and Grits cooked in the comfort of my own home – rather than in the elegant Low Country capital of Charleston — been my introduction to the region’s cuisine. Low Country Cuisine is very much a creature of its geography, at least originally. While there is some debate as to exactly what is meant by the “Low Country” most might agree that it includes that portion of South Carolina’s coastal plain which stretches from Pawleys Island, South Carolina to the confluence of the Savannah River at the Georgia state line. It runs from the “fall line” of the Carolinas – the point at which waterfalls and rapids first appear and the Carolinas’ coastal plain gives way to the Piedmont region and the forests of the Appalachian foothills — to the Atlantic Ocean.
It is the relative accessibility of the low country to the exquisite seafood – shrimp, crab, fish and oysters — and the unique ingredients of the coast – that has always distinguished Low Country cuisine from the main body of Southern cooking. Frankly, Southern food has been one of the few Regional American Cuisines that has largely left me cold. With the exception of Cajun-Creole (with which Low Country Cuisine shares some features), I’ve just never really connected to most Southern cooking.
And many common ingredients and preparations recognizable anywhere in the South grace the Low Country table. The difference is the way they are paired with local bounty. Shrimp and Grits is a perfect example. The grits would be recognizable and in evidence just about anywhere in the South. But what I found in Shrimp and Grits was a dish with an elegant simplicity that reminded me of Tuscan cuisine. The creamy grits – a first cousin to polenta – offer a warm canvas to succulent shrimp that earnestly believes they play the leading role when, in reality, it is always the grits’ show (or so they insist). The remaining garnishes are just that which is necessary to round out the picture and the flavor.
SHRIMP AND GRITS
For the Shrimp:
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Tabasco or Southern-style hot pepper sauce
- 1 ½ pounds of shrimp, peeled and deveined
For the Grits:
- 2 cups milk
- 3 cups water
- 1 ½ cups stone-ground grits, not instant or quick-cooking
- 1 ½ cups goat gouda (or other exceptional) cheese, finely grated
For the Sauce:
- 6 thick slices bacon, diced
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- ½ cup finely sliced scallions
1. Marinate the Shrimp. Combine the shrimp with the lemon juice and a couple of generous splashes of hot pepper sauce. Let sit while you begin the grits and gravy.
2. Prepare the Grits. In a large saucepan over high heat add the milk and water, bring to a boil and slowly whisk in the grits. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes (depending on the cut of the grits). When done, add the cheese and stir until it is melted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
3. For the Sauce. To a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, add the bacon and cook until golden browned and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 3 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion to the skillet and cook until it is just starting to turn translucent. Add the shrimp to the skillet and cook until the shrimp turns pink, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes per side.
4. Finish the Dish. Serve some of the grits in a bowl, top with the shrimp, garnish with the bacon and the scallions. Season to taste with salt and pepper.