Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Uptown shrimp and grits

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 Uptown shrimp and grits My inland home town has embraced this Low Country seafood dish as if it were our own ... and we love to fancy it up with unexpected sauces, spices and additions.
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Uptown shrimp and grits

Whenever I write about grits, I get a lot of Email, and it tends to fall into three categories: Correspondents in the Southern U.S. respond, "Yum, grits!" Readers in the rest of the U.S. tend to say, "Yuk, grits!" And those from outside the U.S. ask, "What the heck are grits?"

To make a long story short, grits are ground hominy (white corn kernels with the hull and germ removed by treatment with lye), cooked into a thick porridge. Polenta is similar and may be substituted if you can't get or don't like grits, but you'll lose the characteristic hominy flavor.

This hearty Southern comfort food celebrates its 400th anniversary in Western culture this year: In 1607, when Sir Walter Raleigh's English colonists established the first European settlement in the New World at Jamestown, Va., the local Indians greeted them with a slumgullion of boiled ground white corn that they called "rockahomine." The settlers dubbed it "grits," and Southern Americans have been eating the stuff ever since.

It didn't take long for cooks to start looking for ways to make the dish more interesting. One of the best variations evolved in South Carolina's Low Country - the coastal strip around Charleston - where hungry folks soon discovered that the tasty shrimp that abounded in the region's coastal waters went a long way to improve the nutritious but bland grits.

In the Low Country, shrimp and grits originated as po' folks wakeup grub, simply dubbed "breakfast shrimp." But inscrutably, in my home town, Louisville - 700 miles from the nearest salt water - shrimp and grits has become a fancy dinner dish, served in dressed-up variations at many of the city's upscale eateries.

The combination is good enough, as I wrote of another variation in the Sept. 16, 2004 FoodLetter, to make a believer out of even the most ardent grits-phobe. In that recipe, whipping in a bit of cream and a little sharp cheese turns the gritty stuff into something much more silken and comforting; simply topped with shrimp and grilled onions and crunchy bits of smoky bacon, it becomes the breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) of champions.

I've been sampling a fair amount of shrimp and grits lately for a review in one of our print-media partners, and the tasty experience inspired me to come up with a variation of my own: Shrimp and grits kicked up with cream and mild goat cheese, dressed with a "red eye gravy" based on strong espresso accented with a spicy touch of chipotles en adobo. The flavor combination may sound offbeat, but it works ... and, I think, offers a good example of the way that inland Louisville has taken this Low Country favorite and made it our own. Perhaps shrimp and grits is the dish that will finally introduce the rest of the world to humble hominy? It could happen!

The recipe is fairly simple but involves several steps. For clarity, I've broken the ingredient list below into sections to help you keep track. And yes, as with just about any grits recipe, you can substitute cornmeal polenta if you must. Give it a try with the real thing, though. I don't think you'll be sorry. I use a local brand from the 142-year-old Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Ky., which offers its product for sale online at


(Serves two)

2 cloves garlic
Dried red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
12 ounces large shrimp (about two dozen)

2-ounce shot of strong espresso
Hot water
1 teaspoon (or to taste) of the sauce from a can or jar of chipotles en adobo and just a bit of finely minced chipotle pepper from the same can.
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

2/3 cup (180g) white corn grits
3 cups water (or a little less)
1/4 teaspoon (4g) salt

2 oz. (60g) heavy cream
2 oz mild goat cheese
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Prep the shrimp. Peel the garlic and mince it fine. Put the minced garlic and dried red-pepper flakes to taste in a saute pan with the olive oil and cook over high heat until the garlic is turning translucent but not brown. Put in the shrimp in their shells and cook, very briefly, just until the shells turn pink. Take out the shrimp and wait until they're cool enough to handle; then peel them and set them aside. Reserve the saute pan with any oil and garlic that remain.

2. Make the chipotle red eye gravy. Pull an espresso shot (or bring one home from your local coffee shop), and mix it with an equal amount of hot water. Stir in a little adobo sauce from a can of Mexican chipotles en adobo, and mince a very small amount of one of the peppers from the can. Taste as you go; I find that this stuff varies widely in heat from can to can, but some of them can blow the top of your head off. Set aside, reserving the cornstarch dissolved in a little water to use for thickening later.

3. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan and stir in the dry grits, pouring them in a thin stream and stirring constantly so they won't form lumps. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until they start to thicken a little. Then reduce heat to medium low and cook uncovered, stirring now and then to ensure that they don't stick. After about 25 minutes, reduce heat to very low, cover the pan, and continue cooking until the grits are done. Then stir in salt to taste. Avoid "instant" grits, which lack the flavor and texture of the real thing, cost more and don't really save much time or effort. If you live in a region where they are available or seek them out by mail-order, stone-ground artisanal grits are well worth the extra price.

4. From this point, it's all downhill. When the grits are nearly done, return the saute pan with the remaining olive oil and garlic and shrimp drippings to medium heat; add a little olive oil if necessary, and when it's hot, toss the shrimp back in for a quick reheat and finish-cooking. Stir in the chipotle-and-adobo-spiced espresso and water, and stir in the cornstarch-water mix over low heat, using just enough to thicken.

5. Stir the heavy cream and mild goat cheese into the hot grits, seasoning to taste with freshly ground black pepper. Put the grits in a serving bowl, pour the shrimp and chipotle-espresso sauce over, and serve.

MATCHING WINE: A crisp, seafood-friendly white with good acidity is called for here; it was brilliant with the Pastou 2006 "La Côte de Sury" Sancerre featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor. I wouldn't rule it out with a lighter-style acidic red ... think Pinot Noir.

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