From Native American roots to a 1980s restaurant review, this classic Southern and Low Country dish continues to grow in popularity. Grits is a staple dish in the South, so much so that some refer to it as the “Grits Belt.” Food historians believe grits originated with the Native American Muskogee tribe, who ground a corn remarkably similar to hominy in a stone mill, giving the corn a “gritty texture. At that time hominy was used for trading and as a currency, so the Muskogee tribe passed the preparation along to settlers in the region.
Shrimp and Grits has been a popular breakfast dish in the low-country marshes near the Southern Coast. The first recipe for Shrimp and Grits appeared in a cookbook entitled Charleston Receipts, published in 1950.
However, things would change, and we would begin eating Shrimp and Grits for dinner. In 1982, Bill Neal became a chef at Crook’s Corner, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He added his own personal touch to this dish, including cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in his grits and topping them with jumbo shrimp, bacon, and mushrooms. Crook’s Corner served Shrimp and Grits for dinner. A restaurant critic named Craig Claiborne of “The New York Times” happened to visit the restaurant and ordered Neal’s Shrimp and Grits. Claiborne published Neal’s recipe in 1985; and since then, cooks all over the country began adding their own personal touch to this dish. Following is my recipe with my own personal touch: Blackened Shrimp and Cheesy Grits. My husband gave it a 10—his highest rating.
Blackened Shrimp and Cheesy Grits
For the blackened shrimp:
1 teaspoon paprika ¼ teaspoon dried oregano ¼ teaspoon dried thyme ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper ½ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined 6 slices bacon 1 tablespoon minced garlic for cooking shrimp 1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced, for cooking shrimp In a medium bowl, place paprika, oregano, thyme, cayenne, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Add shrimp and toss to coat thoroughly. Set aside and marinade for 1 hour. In a large heavy skillet, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crispy. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Drain bacon drippings from the skillet, reserving 4 tablespoons. Crumble bacon and set aside.
For the cheesy grits:
2 cups chicken broth 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup quick corn grits 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded 2 tablespoons butter In a medium saucepan, bring chicken broth, milk, and salt to a low boil. Add grits and whisk over medium heat, stirring vigorously to eliminate lumps. Stir occasionally until grits are thickened and the grains are tender, about 5 minutes. Add cheese and butter and stir gently. Cover and remove from the heat.
Reheat the skillet with 4 tablespoons of bacon drippings over a medium-high heat. When hot, add shrimp. Cook until shrimp are pink and curled, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and parsley.
To serve and garnish:
Crumbled bacon 4 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
Spoon cheesy grits into 4 shallow serving bowls and top with one-quarter of shrimp. Garnish with bacon and green onions.
Tips on buying shrimp: Fresh versus Frozen. Fishermen put shrimp on ice as soon as they are caught. This preserves the shrimp, freezing them so they are just-caught fresh until they are thawed. The fresh shrimp you see on ice in the seafood counter at your supermarket were most likely once frozen and are thawing in the counter. The longer they are in the counter, the less fresh they will be. Unless you know that the fresh shrimp you are buying is fresh off the boat, frozen shrimp is a better choice.
Wild-Caught or Farm-Raised: Wild-caught shrimp have a sharper, more shrimpy taste; however, they are pricier and harder to find. Ninety percent of shrimp sold in the United States are imported from Southeast Asia, Ecuador, and India; and the majority of that is farm-raised. Your supermarket is required to divulge the country of origin and whether shrimp is wild or farmed. Check the label. If you have doubts, farm-raised shrimp cultivated under cleaner standards will bear a “Best Aquaculture Practices” label. The certification label to look for when buying wild shrimp is “Marine Stewardship Council Approved.”
The most common imported shrimp sold in the supermarket are white vannemei and tiger shrimp from Asia. The most common domestic varieties are white and pink shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. If I have a choice, I prefer pink shrimp.
Do not purchase frozen shrimp that have dry spots on their shells. This is a sign of freezer burn. Except for the black tiger variety of shrimp, black spots on shells are an indication of spoilage. Signs of yellow or grit on the shells could mean the shrimp have been bleached to remove black spots. Avoid shrimp that smell like ammonia or feel soft or slimy.
Tips on de-veining shrimp: Unless you are cooking with very small shrimp, they must be de-veined. The intestinal tract on medium to large shrimp runs down their back and is quite unappetizing. To de-vein shrimp, hold them under a slow stream of cold water and run the tip of an ice pick or sharp knife down their back, scraping out the intestine, yet leaving the shrimp intact. Rinse gently to remove any black from the shrimp.
Tips on buying unsoaked shrimp: Shrimp are often soaked in a solution of water and tripolyphosphate. This does extend their shelf life but hurts their flavor. If available, buy the unsoaked or “dry” variety. They have a superior taste. Your supermarket is required by law to tell you whether fish has been soaked in this solution.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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