S.N.O.B. chef Frank Lee's shrimp and grits are soupy and spicy, a melding of two
Southern favorites: classic shrimp and grits and highly seasoned Frogmore Stew.
In Charleston, I flipped over the spicy shrimp and grits I had at S.N.O.B., a.k.a. Slightly North of Broad. This recipe is adapted from the one our genial waitress brought me after I peppered her with eight different questions about the seasonings.
Let me add that I have always hated grits. But if you forgo the instant variety that have no taste, no color and the texture of glue, a new world awaits.
The secret is to use slow-cooked stone ground grits—yellow is my own preference, though white are available too—for the earthy corn flavor and the addictive texture which is creamy and pebbly at the same time. These days the gold standard for chefs are the grits from Anson Mills, made from Carolina Gourdseed white or John Haulk yellow field-ripened dent mill corn. But I used Carolina Favorites Yellow Stone Ground Grits, which I found at Caviar & Bananas in Charleston, and loved them. (You can get them on line from Food for the Southern Soul.)
What are grits, anyway? In Southern Cooking, the late Bill Neal traces the word “grits” to the old English “grytta” which “meant any bran or chaff, and implied coarsely ground grain.” In the South, grits come from hominy, which appears to derive from various Native American words for parched corn. To make hominy, Neal explains, dried corn is soaked in an alkali solution to “facilitate removal of the hulls” and is then dried again and ground for grits. Corn, whether fresh or ground, was a mainstay of the Southern diet from antebellum days until well into the 20th century.
There are many ways to prepare grits. In his cookbook, Neal has recipes for boiled grits, fried grits, grit croquettes and a dish called Awendaw, a descendant of Native American cooking which, with eggs and milk, seems a lot like cornbread. He also offers a rather complex recipe for Deep Fried Shrimp with Brown Onions and Grits, in which the onions are sautéed in bacon fat and butter, then slow cooked until they are caramelized a deep dark brown. The onions, along with battered and fried shrimp are served atop a mound of hot buttered grits. Neal says that Carolinians “attribute remarkable properties of increasing longevity to eating [shrimp and grits] regularly for breakfast.”
I was surprised to find not a single recipe for grits in Charleston Receipts, the city’s wildly successful 1950 cookbook which is still in print. But it was compiled by ladies of the Junior league and though you can bet that grits were served at home—I have it on good authority that in the 1970’s, Sunday night supper often consisted of grits and red beans--perhaps the dish was considered too down-market to be included.
S.N.O.B. chef Frank Lee’s interpretation of shrimp and grits is both soupy and spicy, even though most old Charlestonians are not all that crazy about hot pepper. It derives, in part, from Frogmore Stew, also known as Low Country Boil. In Southern Food, John Egerton quotes George McMillan of The New York Times (February 2, 1986): “When it comes to Frogmore stew every man is his own best chef. But all recipes have hot sausage, corn and shrimp in whatever amounts the cook chooses….The common denominator…seems to be: ‘There’s never any left.’” Frogmore, by the way, is the name of a blink-and-you-miss-it town on St. Helena Island.
Frank Lee’s recipe, which won a GQ Magazine Golden Dish Award in 1994, calls for sea scallops and shrimp—I used only shrimp—as well as country ham and smoked pork sausage, or andouille. Country ham is quite salty, so it’s not a bad idea to cut back on the amount of salt that you might ordinarily use when making the grits. I couldn’t find smoked pork sausage, so I used one link of smoky andouille sausage from Whole Foods that was so peppery that I could easily have left out the cayenne. But it’s up to you—just taste the sausage after you cook it.
What’s fabulous about this dish is the contrast between the spicy shrimp, sausage and ham topping and the creamy, buttery grits. I would gladly serve it on Sunday evening, even to company, but to tell the truth, we had it for breakfast this morning.
S.N.O.B.’s Spicy Shrimp and Grits with Tomato, Country Ham and Cayenne
(adapted from chef Frank Lee’s recipe for Maverick Grits from Slightly North of Broad)
To serve four
Ingredients for the grits:
1-1/4 cup stone ground yellow grits (see note)
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup cream
Method for the grits:
1. Rinse the grits in a large bowl of water. With your hand, scoop out any bran or hulls floating on top of the water. Drain well.
2. Combine the water, salt and butter in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the grits and stir. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 28 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the grits stick to the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat and stir more frequently. As Bill Neal notes, “a long slow cooking is necessary to produce the correct, creamy consistency which is still punctuated by a slight pebbly contrast.”
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream. Keep warm.
Note: Check the directions on the back of your bag of grits. I used Carolina Favorite Stone Ground Grits, which called for 28 minutes of cooking time, which seemed about right once the grits were done. Other brands may take longer. It also called for more salt, but I used Lee’s recommended 1/2 teaspoon.
Ingredients for the topping:
2/3 pound shrimp, 26-35 ct.
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces country ham, julienned
4 ounces smoked pork sausage, or one link andouille sausage, cut into rounds
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of Cajun spice, or cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup fresh tomato, seeded and diced
4 tablespoons green onion, tops only, chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
Method for the topping:
1. While the grits are cooking, peel and devein the shrimp. If desired, swish the shrimp in a bowl of cool, salted water to remove any impurities. Repeat. Finish with a cool water rinse, drain and set aside.
2. When the grits are ready, prepare the topping. In a large skillet, sauté the shrimp in a tablespoon of butter over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are just cooked through. Remove and set aside.
3. In the same skillet, sauté the country ham and sausage for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sausage is cooked through. Taste the sausage for spiciness.
4. Add the garlic and cayenne, if using, and sauté 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and green onions and sauté 30 seconds.
5. Return the shrimp to the skillet, add water or chicken broth and simmer briefly. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter.
6. To serve, spoon four equal portions of the grits into four bowls. Place 5 or 6 shrimp on top of each portion of grits and spoon on equal parts of the topping, including some of the liquid. Serve at once.