I was on stage this past weekend at the Shrimp & Grits Festival in Jekyll Island, Georgia. And let me tell you: this is a wonderful event. Why? The location (on the grounds of the historic Jekyll Island Hotel) is magnificent. So is the staff. And everyone who attends.
Yes, ambiance, history, great folks, and a gentle sea breeze wafting thru the trees made for a wonderful day. In fact, it is usually so wonderful, many attendees make a weekend of it.
Of course the centerpiece, culinary-wise, is the Shrimp & Grits. Hundreds line up to savor this low country dish prepared by pros and amateurs alike as part of a grueling cooking competition. Heck, they even bring in a few celebrity chefs who show you how it's done on the Cooking Stage. (Yeah, that was me up there clad in the very non-Georgian Caribbean shirt, baggy cotton beach pants, and flip-flops.)
But here I must offer a caveat.
I'm from New York. Born and raised there. Just outside the city. Then my parents moved to Tampa Bay where I finished out high school. After high school and through college I lived in South Florida. Then I drifted back to Tampa Bay with my wife to start a fam.
Why am I telling you this? Because grits was about as common in my dietary regimen as ham hocks would be at the annual pot luck at the Beth Emeth synagogue down on the Boston Post Road in Larchmont.
When I finally moved to Chattanooga (the real south) in the late eighties, I had my first sampling of grits. As a cook and connoisseur of all things food, I felt I needed to give them a try. Needless to say, I was under whelmed.
Oh, they didn't taste bad.
Bad had nothing to do with it.
It was the taste that was lacking.
Perhaps you've never had grits. If so, let me describe them for you. Did you ever work with papier-mâché when you were a kid? Did you ever eat any of the goop before you dipped the newspaper into it? Of course you did. We all did.
Grits are a lot like that.
So imagine throwing a couple of handfuls of sand into your papier-mâché goop before tasting it. Yeah. That about sums up grits.
But wait! I hear the southerners chiming in: You need to add salt! (Evidently lots of salt.) And grated cheese! (Gobs of cheese.) And butter! (One stick or two?) That way, the lowly grits will rise in your culinary estimation. Of course, with a couple of tablespoons of salt, a cup or two of grated cheese and a stick of butter, even a carburetor would taste good.
So I decided to stick with the oh-so-dependable (and tasty) home fries sauteed in onions and peppers for my breakfast. Or any other time when grits might be an option.
Until I tried shrimp & grits.
Now I'm a bona fide grits fan. Maybe it was the shrimp that did it. Who knows? But now I'm a fan.
And here's the interesting thing. There are not a lot of variations with this dish (as there are for chili, marinara sauce, beef stew, etc.) Why? Because it is good from the get-go. So if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
But being a wise-ass chef, I had to try.
So while I didn't change the basics, I did make a few minor alterations. I cooked my shrimp in with the grits and I made a shrimp gravy to serve over the grits. And according to the crowd I cooked for at the Festival, it was a winner.
Of course, if it did suck, I wouldn't have bothered to fix it. And neither should you. But it didn't suck, so I will fix it. Again and again. For breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Go ahead and give it a shot. Even if you're from the Bronx. And if your lover tells you that they don't eat grits, heck, tell 'em it's papier-mâché. They'll love you for it!
TABLE FOR TWO SHRIMP & GRITS
Prep Time: 5 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes
3/4 pound large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1 clove garlic, crushed or minced
pinch of cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (use less if your bacon is very salty)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste (Frank's or Tabasco are fine)
1/2 cup quick grits (not instant)
4 ounces good extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
2 or 3 scallions, green part only, sliced for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 375º. Toss the shrimp with the oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Refrigerate while preparing the grits.
2. Sauté the bacon in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Add onions and sauté until soft and translucent. About 5 - 7 minutes.
3. Stir in the water, cream, hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil. Slowly stir in the grits, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring often, until the grits are thick and creamy, about 5 - 8 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and stir in the grated cheese. Remove shrimp from the fridge and place on top of the grits in a circle, pressing on each one until they buried about half-way. Place in the oven and bake until shrimp are cooked through, about 5 - 8 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp. (Or you may add the shrimp to the skillet and cook over medium , stirring, until shrimp are pink and cooked through.)
Ladle shrimp gravy (below) over all and sprinkle with chopped scallions and bacon bits.
Prep Time: 5 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes
1 slice bacon, chopped
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup diced celery
1/2 pound large shrimp, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
pinch dried red pepper or to taste
1/2 cup shrimp, chicken, or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon browning sauce (Kitchen Bouquet is fine)
1. Sauté the bacon in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp and brown, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
2. Add the onion, red pepper and celery and sauté until tender, about 8 - 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and sauté until they turn pink and opaque, about 2 - 3 more minutes.
3. Remove shrimp and vegetables with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl. Add the broth and browning sauce to the skillet. Season with salt, pepper and dried red pepper. Bring to a boil then simmer for 1 - 2 minutes. Return the shrimp, vegetables and bacon to the sauce and heat for 1 more minute. Serve over shrimp & grits.