Monday, May 24, 2010

Low Country Love: Shrimp & Grits

Breakfast-style shrimp and grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

If there is a universal code of comfort food, surely shrimp and grits would be part of it. If I were writing the rules, I would say that comfort food: 1. must be warm, 2. served in a bowl, and 3. be filling to the belly and soothing to the soul. Like the best music and books, comfort food is imbued with a sense of place and a bowl of shrimp and grits, just like Proust's madeleine, pulls me back every time to the South Carolina low country.

I have a South Carolina provenance, spending eight of my growing-up years in the northern part of the state, but I didn’t see the painted houses of Charleston and dine on shrimp and grits until many years after I’d left the red clay for the green hills of Georgia. The upstate town where my family lived, Gaffney, is peach country, where we could buy the juiciest, most luscious peaches imaginable, but shrimp came from the A & P, just like everything else. Before I visited Charleston, I read Pat Conroy's books, in the same way that folks read books before they see movies, I had to read about the low country before I saw it for myself. Conroy is nationally know as the author of the “Prince of Tides“ and “The Great Santini” and dear to this Southerner's heart. He’s a raconteur, a lover of stories and food, and both are given equal treatment in his cookbook, "The Pat Conroy Cookbook." (If I ever meet Mr. Conroy again, I'm going to tell him that the title is factual, but doesn't do the content justice - this book is as much memoir as recipes.)

Conroy's books bring the South Carolina low country, particularly Beaufort, to life - he calls them "psalms" to his hometown. This is his description of the low country, "I cannot look at a salt marsh, veined with salt creeks swollen with the moonstruck tides, without believing in God. The marsh is feminine, voluptuous when the creeks fill up with the billion-footed swarm of shrimp and blue crabs and oysters in the great rush to creation in the spring."

The fishers of the billion-footed swarm are losing out to overseas competion, according to the South Carolina Shrimper's Association Marketing Board. Its website says that 75 percent of the shrimp market has been lost to cheaper pond-raised, imported shrimp. If supporting the American shrimp market is important to you, be sure to look for "American Ocean-Caught Shrimp" on the label.

Charlestonians have many ways with shrimp, (forgive me if this sounds Bubba Gump) pickled shrimp, shrimp paste, and my favorite, shrimp and grits. This is the fisherman’s breakfast, served on the boat or at home, with fresh-from-the-brine shrimp and the Southern standby, grits, which is dried, ground corn. (It’s similar to polenta and a satisfying food for breakfast or supper.) What started as inexpensive, readily available food has become an upscale icon of regional cuisine, and surely on every menu in restaurant-mad Charleston.

My recipe for shrimp and grits isn’t fancy, but does showcase the superlative sweetness of American ocean-caught shrimp. I saute the little guys in butter and finish with a hit of lemon juice. The grits are creamy and rich thanks to milk and chicken broth, butter and Parmesan cheese. My children love this, and it's cooked more often for supper than for breakfast.

Shrimp and Grits, Breakfast Style
Serves 4
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup water
2 cups milk
1 cup grits (see note below)
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper to taste

1 stick butter
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (save the peels for future shrimp broths)
Juice of one lemon (you won’t use it all)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a nonstick saucepan, pour in chicken broth, water and milk and heat over a medium flame until bubbles appear at perimeter. (Voice of experience: don’t leave the room, because boiled-over milk is a bear to clean.) Add grits in a slow, steady stream, stirring with a whisk all the while. Stone-ground grits take about 30 minutes of patient and frequent stirring, quick grits take between 5 and 10 minutes of steady whisking action. When grits are just shy of done (depends on your personal taste - loose or leaden), stir in Parmesan and butter and season to taste.

2. Pull out your favorite skillet and melt the butter over medium heat. When butter is foamy, add the shrimp and let cook until pink, just a couple of minutes. Stir to ensure even pinkiness. Freshen with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

3. Serve bowls of creamy grits garnished with shrimp.

A note on grits: Chef cookbooks specify using stone-ground grits, organic preferred. These are not easy to come by for the home cook who shops at suburban supermarkets. And I find the idea of mail-ordering grits to be absurd. Every time I use stone ground grits, my kids pick out the brown specks and accuse me of putting bugs in their food. So, I use ordinary store brand grits in a canister. Look for brand names like Quaker and Jim Dandy and all will be fine. If you live in the South, look for the bag of Dixie Lily brand yellow corn grits. They cook in five minutes and have a perky yellow color that will make you smile.

© 2010, Lucy Mercer.

The quote about salt marshes and God is from "The Pat Conroy Cookbook," published by Random House, © 2004.

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