February 24, 2011. Do your mouth a favor and make this. Or part of it. Sweet, creamy corn. Deeply, darkly rich sauce. Succulent, barely crisped shrimp.
I ate the definitive version of this dish in Charleston, South Carolina, USA a few days ago. It was prepared by the great chef Sean Brock at his Husk Restaurant. His is one of the Top 100 Best Tasting Things in the World.
My version won’t make that list, but at least I can make it at home. And it’s really delicious. A great example of Better Cheaper Slower eating.
This stone-ground, hand-milled corn takes a while to become great grits, but you don’t do much to help. If you soak them in advance, they’ll cook for 50 minutes. If not, they’ll cook for 90. Or put them in your slow cooker for two hours and walk away.
Other than a cup of grits, all you need is water (about 4 cups), salt (1 tsp), pepper (1/2 tsp, optional) and unsalted butter (2 tbsp, optional for vegans, required for everyone else). These ingredients will make four servings suitable for shrimp and sauce.
The cooking instructions come straight from the miller. They’re very particular about how you treat their grains, and their instructions always work:
Combine and stir (with a wooden spoon) 2.5 cups of spring water with 1 cup of grits. Do it in a heavy saucepan, and skim off any chaff and hulls that float to the top. Then put the pan on a burner set to medium high and stir constantly for 5 – 8 minutes, until the mixture begins to simmer and the finer corn particles thicken and hold the larger ones in suspension. When this happens, reduce the heat to low and cover the pan.
Come back and give it a stir every ten minutes, adding a little hot water whenever the grits are thick enough to hold your spoon upright. After the first 30 minutes, stir in the teaspoon of salt. When the grits are ready, non-vegans stir in the butter. Everybody salts and peppers to taste.
The Shrimp and its Sauce
While your corn’s becoming grits, get your shrimp ready. Start by medium-heating some olive oil, onions and garlic in a big pan for ten minutes. While that’s happening, shell and clean your shrimp.
Then put the shrimp shells in the pan, turn up the heat, and crisp them. Add some lemon peel if you like to do that sort of thing. Stir it all up a few times. Then add two cups of water and two tablespoons of concentrated tomato paste. Stir while you bring it to a boil.
Turn the heat down to get a steady simmer. Stir in ten drops of Tabasco Sauce for a little kick. Partially cover the pan and let it be. Delicious. And, in 30 or 40 minutes, reduced to a rich, fragrant shrimp stock. When it looks, smells and tastes like something that’s going to make you very happy, pour it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the shells, onions, lemon peels and whatever else you might have thrown in. Non-vegans may whisk in a tablespoon or two of butter. Everyone whisks in a tablespoon or two of flour to thicken the liquid a bit. Keep it hot on the stove.
Now cook the shrimp quickly and carefully. You can do this in olive oil or butter. Or you can make believe you’re down South and use bacon fat by crisping small pieces of bacon or ham in a hot pan, then sliding them to the edge of the pan. In the hot oil or fat, cook the shrimps on one side for 30 seconds or so, until they begin to turn pink. Turn ’em over and do the other side until it begins to turn pink. No more. Don’t dry them out.
Now: move the shrimps into the sauce. Bacon, too, if you did that. Simmer for thirty seconds. Put the shrimp on top of the grits. Spoon some sauce over it all. Top it off with thin slices of scallion.
Creamy but firm grits. Succulent shrimp. A sauce you’ll love, respect and be proud of even if it’s not nearly as good as Sean Brock’s.
No shrimp? Use some ham or bacon. Reduce some stock, beef or chicken, for your sauce.
Or just embrace, really embrace, butter. For one night. Not sparingly. Stir well.
Want a little smoke without the bacon? Stir into your sauce a quarter-teaspoon of pimentón, the Spanish smoked ground chili pepper powder. It’s the Spanish version of smoked paprika. Two styles: picante (spicy) and dulce (sweet). Your choice.
Seventy-five cents or less for your grits. Three dollars or less for your shrimp – and their shells that go in your sauce. Another fifty cents for the other sauce ingredients. About four bucks per person for a thoroughly satisfying and spectacularly tasty meal.
You can’t substitute grits for potatoes at Red Lobster, but you can get a plate of Crunchy Popcorn Shrimp for $15.25. Frozen, farmed and possibly funky shrimp. Four times more expensive than the wild, fresh, big sweet shrimp I used. Better is Cheaper.
Let’s Do The Math
You’ll burn about 240 calories by standing and stirring grits occasionally for an hour; more if you dance and sing. One of the four delicious servings of grits you get from this recipe: 205 calories (less if you skip the butter). Net loss: 35 calories. What about the shrimp? 30 calories for four big ones. Really. The cook eats for free.
Your non-stirring guests? A 40-minute walk for them. Unless they’re dancing and singing in the kitchen with you.
Red Lobster’s Crunchy Popcorn Shrimp: 560 calories. What’re they coating those things with? 210 more for the mashed potatoes. 35 for the broccoli. 705 calories. That’s a two-and-a-half-hour walk.
It’s Always Something
If you want fabulous grits without stirring, there is a way. The folks at Anson Mills permit no shortcuts in this or any other preparation, but they do believe you get perfect results by putting them in a Slow Cooker for two hours and walking away. They’re right.
I tried it in my Cuisinart 4-Quart Slow Cooker. I did nothing. They turned out perfectly. Do I recommend this? Yes, but only if you dance for at least 60 minutes while your Slow Cooker is doing the work for you.
Every Thing Is Everything
My Slow Cooker’s 215-Watt heating element (set to high) used about .43 kilowatt-hours in two hours; at the national average of 12 cents/kWh, my cooking cost was about 5 cents. When I use a burner (set to low) on my gas stove for an hour, I use about 2000 BTU, the equivalent of .57 kWh; the cost is about 1 cent. Environmental cost? The difference is tiny.
Wanna reduce your carbon footprint in the kitchen? Eat less meat – and when you eat meat, get it from a local, small-scale organic producer. Producing a pound of beef at an industrial feedlot produces 100 times more greenhouse gas than growing vegetables. (“How Meat Contributes to Global Warming“, Scientific American)
If you’re wondering about the carbon footprint of your grains, buying from Anson Mills keeps it tiny. Yes, they practice organic, sustainable farming. Now consider transportation. Their stuff makes one trip: from them to you. Even if you walk to and from a local store, whatever you buy there has gone from a farm to a mill to a distribution center and, in the best case, from there to your store.