Saturday, June 09, 2007

Shrimp Grits: Southern Carried to Greatness

It was so stunningly good, I went to the computer as soon as I got home and sketched this out. But it took several weeks before I actually published it, since I needed to test the recipe I imagined before putting it out on the blog.

Having cooked all day in Athens for other people that Saturday, I arrived home in Atlanta in the evening, with family away for the weekend, wanting to eat someone else's cooking. A great local restaurant is Watershed, a mile and a half away in Decatur, an increasingly cool town with increasingly excellent dining. I chose Watershed because I wanted a light meal of a glass of a well-selected wine and a creative appetizer. The executive chef, Scott Peacock, excells in bringing traditional Southern food into the 21st century with a precise hand, classical culinary (read French) training, and excellent balance of flavors. I chose his Shrimp Grits with a grilled slab of bread, and had a delicious cold Vouvray, a Chenin Blanc wine from France's Loire Valley. While that wine is slightly sweet, it was actually great with the amazing shrimp-infused stone-ground grits.

I realize I have some blog readers in Boston, courtesy of Lisa and Jason, so bear with me on the idea of grits. And my apologies if you cannot get excellent North Georgia country stone-ground grits at your neighborhood grocery. (Our deli and market in Athens sells Nora Mills grits and cornmeal from Helen, Georgia, which are hard to beat). But even making this dish with Quaker or Aunt Jemima grits, which you should be able to get (regular, not "quick" grits), you can see why you should spend some quality dining time in Georgia.

I really love shrimp and grits. But I was more familiar with -- and make for catering -- the Low Country Carolina-Georgia style, with a bed of cheese grits under a load of freshly cooked bright orange-pink shrimp and their delicious sauce. Watershed's creamy Shrimp Grits were quite different, more like a shrimp-enhanced risotto made with coarse country grits in place of rice. The waiter went back to the kitchen at my request to check the type of cheese in the grits, and reported back there was no cheese but rather that milk, butter and "shrimp paste" were used. I suspect he did not get the full story, and a clever chef will never give out a few key details. My impression was that, as for risotto, some cream and white wine slipped their way into the grits when no one outside the swinging kitchen door could see. And there may even have been a little Parmesan, but maybe it really was just the milk and butter that did it. At any rate, here's my copy of, or at least my effort at copying, what I relished that evening. And if I can say so, I nailed it.

Unless I'm at the coast, I much prefer still-frozen shrimp (available already shelled and deveined, tails still on, in bags in freezer at the supermarket) to the thawed and often stale and nasty ones at the fish counter. Defrost the quantity you need (allow a little extra weight if you have shells to discard) in cool water just before use, and pat dry with paper towel.

Despite my Vouvray that evening, I recommend a cold crisp Sauvignon Blanc, the sister white grape from the Loire Valley, either as a Sancerre from France (a little pricey in these days of the fat Euro) or as almost any Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (I never had a bad one from there); alternatively a cold Chardonnay from California, Washington State, or Australia would do well. This dish will serve 4 as a light but elegant meal, or 6 as the appetizer course of a larger dinner.

Shrimp Grits after the Manner of Watershed Tim

1/2 pound frozen uncooked (or very fresh) shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tail shells removed
2-1/2 cups water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1-1/4 cups stone ground, or at least "regular" (not "quick"), grits
1 small clove garlic, put through a press or finely minced
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A pinch of black pepper
A pinch cayenne or a large squirt of tobasco sauce
A pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grated Romano or parmesan cheese

After getting all the shell and vein off the shrimp, rinse them then dry them with paper towels. Finely chop the shrimp with a chef's knife or in a food processor. Set aside.

In a heavy pan, bring the water, milk and cream to a gentle boil, and add the grits in a steady stream while stiring the mixture. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer, covered, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan. When the mixture has thickened, add the garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne or pepper sauce, nutmeg, and wine, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the grits are reasonably tender, 20-30 minutes depending on the variety used. Set the grits pan in a larger frying pan partly filled with hot water, so the grits stay hot and cook slowly. Add the shrimp mixture and butter. Cook together, stirring frequently, at least 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Stir in the grated cheese and a fresh sprinkle of black pepper. Keep the mixture warm in the water bath until needed.

At the Watershed this went very well with a slice of good crusty bread presented as a long strip buttered and grilled (I suspect on a griddle). A light salad and a glass of crisp cold white wine make a great accompaniment.


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