Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: South Carolina II - True Shrimp and Grit

(* Titled "True Shrimp and Grit" because someone already used "True Grits".  Gee thanks, Alton Brown.)
Most Southerners might argue that of all the quintessentially Southern foods, it is grits that truly separates the "Proper South" from "Everyone Else".  This quintessential food, as pointed out by Alton Brown himself in his "True Grits" episode of Good Eats [2004], argued that grits - stone ground corn, sometimes treated or nixtamalized with lye (this makes hominy grits), sometimes not (this makes plain ol' grits) - is more or less the same thing as that favorite Italian maize dish, polenta.  In fact, he says they are the same thing (aside: check out the fascinating story of an early blooper in this episode that Alton caught after much correspondence with fans on the Good Eats Fan Page).  Heck, today Southerners and Otherners eat both, blissfully unaware of the difference.

Official Name: State of South Carolina
State Nicknames: The Palmetto State
Admission to the US: May 23, 1788 (#8)
Capital: Columbia (largest)
Other Important Cities: Charleston (2nd largest), North Charleston (3rd largest), Greenville (6th largest)
Region: South, Southeast, Lowcountry; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsChestnutCrabcake
Bordered by: North Carolina (north), Georgia (southwest), Atlantic Ocean (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: boiled peanuts (snack food), collard greens (vegetable), grits (food - okay, this is unofficial), milk (beverage), peach (fruit), rockfish / striped bass (fish), summer / wood duck (duck), white-tailed deer (animal), wild turkey (wild game bird)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southern foods, particularly Lowcountry foods in the southern / eastern half of the state (especially purloo, Gullah cuisine); seafood (shrimp, crabs, typically boiled or in soups); Lady Baltimore cake; different types of barbecue, including its unique mustard barbecue (between Columbia and Charleston)
As I've said before, my own home state's cuisine is quite Southern in some ways (fried chicken, Moon Pies, beaten biscuits, a lack of enthusiasm for sweet cornbread or not very sweet tea) and quite Northern in others (immigrant cuisines like the Italian, German, Polish and Jewish ones you find in the Northeast, a lack of enthusiasm for boiling shellfish - actually Northerners do this too.  Maybe it's just a Chesapeake thing).  The notable lack of grits at my breakfast table growing up was one of the more Northern aspects of my life growing up in Baltimore.  And though they are becoming much more popular (again?) here than ever before, grits at least for me was something I just didn't eat much.  Granted, I never saw oatmeal at the breakfast table either.  It was pretty much just pancakes, French toast and SmurfBerry Crunch.

Grits, of course, is not just for breakfast.  It can be eaten in a bevy of interesting ways from appetizers to main meals to dessert.  But regardless, most chefs today, from Brown to Nathalie Dupree to Matt and Ted Lee of Myrtle Beach, would all recommend the coarse stone ground stuff over the finely textured "instant grits" (not exactly the "pink slime" of grits but still).  Granted, the harried home cook doesn't always have time to keep a pot of grits on the stove for an hour, but it still tastes and feels better.  The Lee Brothers explain in their Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook [2006]:

Grits ground between cool stones, as opposed to those processed with warmer steel rollers in a high-speed commercial mill, are superior, more intense and fuller-bodied in both flavor and texture, because they retain all of the heat-sensitive corn oils contained in the corn kernel.  Commercial mills deliberately remove the oil-rich heart of the corn kernel so the grits won't turn rancid on the grocery store shelf.  Like many whole-grain meals and flours, stone-ground grits are truly perishable.  They're at their peak the moment they're ground and will slowly fade at room temperature over the course of the next three to six weeks, so we strongly advise you to buy them from the mill if possible...and store them in a sealed bag or container in the refrigerator or freezer. [Lee & Lee 2006:142]
Since most of us don't have a big ol' mill nearby from which to purchase our grits, the Lees give us some mail-order options.  Or lacking that, Trader Joe's and Fresh Market have stone-ground grits.  Surprisingly, few of my local supermarkets do - not even Charlotte-based Harris Teeter (way to drop the ball, guys).  It's all the finely textured maize.

Out of all the grits dishes I could have chosen, especially the iconic cheese grits, one truly Lowcountry take on them is the famous shrimp and grits that you can easily find on either side of the Savannah River.  I was eyeing the Lee brothers recipe among many others, but finally went with a recipe former Town & Country editor James Villas found for his cookbook The Glory of Southern Cooking [2007].  This native son of North Carolina has three takes on shrimp and grits in his cookbook, and seemingly his favorite one ("perfection" was his exact word) came from the Captain Jules (or is it Captain Juel's?) Hurricane Restaurant in Little River, South Carolina.
Typically, the cooks told me they didn't have an exact recipe (ha!), but after gabbing with them for an hour about the dish, I left with enough information to concoct what  now deem to be the quintessential formula.  My lifelong search for authentic shrimp and grits, therefore, is over - at least for the time being. [Villas 2007: 290]
The recipe I use is Villas' interpretation of Captain Jules' / Juel's shrimp and grits, pages 290 -291 of The Glory of Southern Cooking.

The Recipe: Shrimp and Grits

To make this version of shrimp and grits you will need the following:

For the "grits" part of the shrimp and grits...

* grits (preferably stone ground - search for these if you have to.  These will be the slow cookin' kind.  Trader Joe's had stone ground grits for only about $3)
* half and half (a quart ran about $1.50 at Harris Teeter)
* butter (had it)
* water and salt (had these too)

And for the "shrimp" part...

* shrimp (I got 1 1/2 lbs at Harris Teeter, apparently wild caught fresh shrimp from somewhere in the United States, for about $10 per lb)
* red and green bell peppers (one each, the green for about $1 for one, the red for about the same at Harris Teeter)
* onions (only about $1 or so at Harris Teeter)
* garlic (had it)
* andouille sausage (the good thing about this: I found it in the butcher's section for about $6 per lb.  I bought one for just $1.25)
* chicken broth (had that Better than Bouillon stuff, which seems to be working fine so far0
* heavy cream (about $2. This stuff ain't cheap)
* oil (just a dash.  Villas recommends peanut oil.  I have veggie oil pictured but ended up using that rice bran oil I had from the Oregon posts, since its smoke point is about the same as peanut oil)
* thyme, oregano and paprika (had 'em all)

First wash off the shrimp.

You need to peel the shrimp...

...and then de-vein them.  This is tedious but necessary.

Next, chop the onions, garlic and bell peppers.

Chop the andouille sausage...

...and fry it for a few minutes in a skillet (cast iron here0 with a dash of oil.

Now would be a good time to start on those grits.  While your sausage is rendering place a large pot of water (exact measurements in Villas' recipe) on the stove to boil.  When it starts boiling you will add the grits.

Back to the skillet: add your vegetables and shrimp and cook for several more minutes.

Once the shrimp are cooking, add the grits to your pot of water.

And back to the shrimp: add the chicken broth to the shrimp concoction and stir it.

Back to the grits: after a few minutes it should be bubbling a bit.  When it does that...

...add the butter, half and half and salt...

...and cover.  You will need to stir on occasion but set this on the burner, on low, for about 50 minutes.  Yes, the Trader Joe's package says half an hour.  Ignore it.  Cook this until smooth and creamy.

 Now back to the shrimp: add heavy cream to your shrimp gravy and let it reduce.

 I should have reduced it more than this, but oh well.

To assemble this, you simply place some of the grits on your plate...

...and place your shrimp and shrimp gravy on top.

This was my first time making slow cooked grits, and I've never made shrimp and grits before.  It is such a lovely dish!  The creamy grits and the shrimp gravy just mix wonderfully together (though add a dash of salt to taste, of course).  The shrimp adds a nice firm bite.  Plus, the shrimp are slightly spicy and the grits is wonderfully buttery due to the half and half and, well, butter.  It's a dish worth eating often.


Food Network.  "True Grits".  Episode of the show Good Eats (Alton Brown, host). Food Network, 2004.

Dabney, Joseph.  The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: A Celebration of the Foods, History, and Romance Handed Down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland.  Cumberland House: Naperville, Illinois, 2010.

DiRuscio, Mike.  "Transcription of Good Eats: True Grits".  Good Eats Fan Page (, 2004.  Includes correspondence between DiRuscio and Alton Brown about the episode.

Lee, Matt, and Ted Lee. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners.   W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2006.

Opala, Joseph A.  "Introduction to The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection".  The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection, online version of the pamphlet, United States Information Service: Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1986.  Online access available through the Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University.

Prather, Ramsey.  "Lowcountry Cuisine: South Carolina's coast is home to one of the country's richest culinary traditions."  Coastal Living (  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. All Rights Reserved.

Shields, John.  Chesapeake Bay Cooking.  Broadway Books: New York, 1998.

Villas, James.  The Glory of Southern Cooking.  John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2007.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "South Carolina" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "South Carolina".