My first encounter with Southern food — from okra to greens to dumplings or biscuits and gravy or catfish — completely turned me off to the region’s cuisine. As a proud and true Pacific Northwesterner at heart, I turn my nose up at Atlantic and/or farmed salmon, and I’m totally okay with long stretches of gray, rainy days.
But when a tractor purchase in rural Alabama led Jon and me on a road trip through the South last January, we stopped for one blessed night in Oxford, Mississippi (home to Faulkner! The joy!) and a plate of shrimp and grits from City Grocery changed my life, and my view of Southern cooking.
Here’s chef John Currence’s original recipe (plus a totally cool interview).
But here’s my lazy, imprecise version that I cook while drinking wine and catching up on Mad Men:
2/3 cups grits
salt and pepper
4 tblsp butter
X-Sharp white cheddar and parmesan cheese, shredded
Bacon (however much; in my opinion, more is better!)
White wine (Sauvignon Blanc is the best for cooking. Reisling works, too.)
Salt and pepper
What you’ll need.
I bought these grits at a health foods superstore down in Rogers, Arkansas.
Chef John’s recipe calls for instant grits, which I find a little bit odd. City Market is a world-class restaurant, and they’re using instants? Come on. Plus, in the interview, he raves about quality grits, which is what I prefer. Takes longer to cook, but the end texture’s better, and the bag looks prettier on your kitchen shelf. What can I say? Cooking is as much about aesthetic as it is about taste.
Start with the grits. On the bag, 2/3 C dry feeds two people, but when you factor in the mushrooms and shrimp, I think 2/3 C is enough for four people. It doesn’t make a huge mound of food on your plate but, with the cheese and the wine, it sits heavenly heavy rich in your belly at the end of a meal.
One special trick if you’re using raw grits: rinse it to get rid of the floating bran. After the water’s boiling, dump in the grits and leave ’em to cook for 30-40 minutes. Meanwhile…
Shred your cheeses and set aside for later.
Now fry up that bacon. I’m kind of a freak about meat. I know it’s easy to go to your “local” superstore and get totally mouth-watering chemically-loaded brand-familiar bacon. But it’s so much cooler to go down to your neighborhood meat market, if you have one, and let them hand-pick fresh (local!!!) bacon and wrap it up in wax paper for you. Shake the hand that feeds you as much as you can.
While the bacon’s a-sizzling, chop up that garlic. The recipe says finely minced, or something, and I agree. If you’re not up for the stink on your hands, keep a half-lemon handy to rub off the stench afterward. Plus, you can run it down your garbage disposal to keep your kitchen smelling fresh!
When the bacon’s done, keep some of the grease and add olive oil. Once it’s hot, toss in the garlic. I always cook garlic on low heat. It’s so easy to burn — and if you let it get brown, it turns bitter.
While the garlic is infusing the grease, quick-chop the mushrooms. Chef John says to slice, but I prefer Julia Child’s quartering method. Cut off the stem, then cut the cap into four chunks. That way, when you add them to heat, everything is generally the same size and cooks evenly.
I know (a lot) about cooking mushroom from Ms. Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Mushrooms are tricksters — when you add them to oil, they immediately absorb fat. Resist the urge to add more oil. Wait 2-3 minutes for the magic to happen: under heat, mushrooms will “sweat” and then correctly saute. To keep them from discoloring, add lemon! Voila!
Meanwhile, dice your bacon. I prefer them chopped, roughly the size of my thumbnails.
Add the wine and the shrimp and let that mess simmer up.
I differ from Chef John’s recipe order here only because, in rural Missouri, one rarely gets fresh shrimp from our limited grocery stores. So I use thawed, pre-cooked, tail-on shrimp cook them just enough so that they’re hot (maybe… three minutes at medium heat). If you overcook these already-cooked babies, but any shrimp in general, they turn tough and rubbery, which is exactly what you do NOT want in any seafood dish.
While the shrimp is cooking with the wine in mushrooms, toss the butter and cheese into the grits.
Then add the tabasco, paprika, and cayenne.
Add the bacon to the shrimp…
Toss in the green onions and turn off the heat.
Get a pretty plate, a nice wine (my instinct tells me a white would pair best, but I adore light reds like Pinot Noirs or Tempranillos) spoon the shrimp over the grits and eat your way into Southern heaven.