Few things scream Southern cuisine as readily as a heaping bowl of creamy grits. Just the word itself elicits feelings of down home breakfasts surrounded by family.
It’s been a mainstay in the South since the first settlers arrived in the new land. Native Americans regularly dined on hominy, a mush made from softened corn, and taught the colonists how to remove the hulls from dried corn to create the dish they referred to “rockahomine.” It has been an affordable, and versatile, part of the Southern diet ever since.
Finding the origins of shrimp and grits is as challenging as tracing the roots of the shag. No one is quite sure who did it first, whether the Gullah slave communities or the budget conscious commercial fishing families. We do know, however, that coastal families in Georgia and the Carolinas were fond of sautéing the abundant catch in bacon grease to toss on top of their grits for a more nourishing breakfast. Other fish was used as well, including catfish, but nothing as widely as the small, flavorful shrimp.
Through the decades several restaurants have claimed to be the first to add the dish to their menus. One thing nobody argues, however, is how the dish was thrust into the spotlight. The late Bill Neal, a chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, gets all the credit for that. After adding the dish to his menu, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times visited the restaurant and published his recipe in 1985, giving the once localized specialty national attention for the first time.
This was not our ancestor’s shrimp and grits, but rather a dressed up version of the once sparse recipe. Neal used cheddar and parmesan cheese grits as his base, adding bacon, mushrooms, scallions and a touch of hot sauce to the well-received dinner option.
Since the article appeared, regional chefs have found numerous ways to prepare the dish. The only thing that truly remains constant is the shrimp and the grits themselves. From adding andouille sausage or tasso ham to just about every type of seasoning and spice, recipes are as different as the chefs that prepare them.
“It really is a recipe that uses 100 percent Southern ingredients,” said Chef Charles Park of the Beaufort Grocery Co., Beaufort, who opts for plain, high quality stone-ground grits. “America has a lot of regional cuisine. The Northeast has lobster and clam bakes and fish and chips with cod. In the South, we have grits and shrimp and fried chicken and collards. These are some of the staples of Southern culture.”
It is also a dish that is highly customizable – perfect for culinary creativity. Park, for example, avoids using stock to make his grits and reserves the bacon as a garnish, creating a vegetarian friendly option. He prefers a tomato based sauce with Cajun barbecue influences.
“I shy away from making it too spicy, I don’t think it has to be spicy or hot to have a bold flavor,” he said. “But that’s one of the great things about the dish. You can ask 10 chefs and they will all have a different way of preparing it,” said Park.
And you don’t even have to wander far from home. Just over the high rise bridge at The Bistro in Morehead City, Chef Tim Coynes opts for more of an alfredo-style white sauce with his shrimp and grits.
“We didn’t have it on the menu until about five years ago,” said Coynes. “We were doing a lot of Italian at the time, which gave me the idea. We had had several requests for it, so I made a batch and served it for a panel one day to see if we should add it to the menu. Everyone loved it.”
Rich, creamy and decadent, the dish is reminiscent of a shrimp alfredo over grits instead of pasta. And after five years, it continues to have a strong fan base.
“It’s been a popular dish since we added it,” the chef said.
One thing both chefs do agree on is the use of stone-ground grits in lieu of the instant variety. They take longer to cook, about 45 minutes, but have a richer flavor and are well worth the time. To reduce your cook time, try soaking your grits in water overnight in the refrigerator, a trick every Southerner knows.
SHRIMP & GRITS
- 1 cup white or yellow stone-ground grits
- ¾ cup grated cheddar
- ¼ cup parmesan
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- Kosher salt
- 2 tbsp. canola oil
- 4 slices bacon, chopped
- 1 lb. medium shrimp (about 30), peeled
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 button mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- ½ cup chicken broth
- 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, plus 4 lemon wedges
- ½ tsp. hot sauce, preferably Tabasco
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
In a 2-qt. saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil. Reduce heat to low and whisk in grits. Cook, whisking frequently, until grits are tender and creamy, 30-45 minutes. Whisk in cheddar, parmesan and 1 tbsp. butter and season with salt; cover and set aside. Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel and set aside. Reserve cooking fat in skillet. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, add shrimp to skillet and cook, turning once, until bright pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a plate with a slotted spoon. Lower heat to medium, add mushrooms to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add garlic and cook until golden, 1 minute. Raise heat to high, add chicken broth and scrape bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon. Cook until broth reduces by half. Return shrimp to skillet along with the lemon juice, remaining butter and hot sauce and cook, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Divide grits between 4 bowls. Top each with shrimp and sauce and garnish each bowl with bacon, scallions and lemon.