Is there anything quite so wonderful as the combination of shrimp and grits? Perhaps it is the blend of sweetnesses from the shrimp and corn , or the briny taste of seafood paired so nicely with the earthy aroma of good-quality, coarse grits that makes the dish so wonderful... the point is: it's one of those perfect culinary combinations that begs to be explored.
I am usually disappointed in the versions I find in restaurants, often times because of the quality of corn meal I encounter. Even the cheap, instant stuff has a satisfying "comfort food" quality to it (and don't get me wrong, I'll still eat it! Kinda like pizza... good, even when it's bad.), but it totally lacks in complexity and depth of flavor, which the cook will often counteract by adding copious amounts of butter and cream. If instant grits are your thing, I'm not hating on that. I get it - they're easy. But before you eschew forking over a little extra money for the good stuff, consider the benefits:
Traditionally milled grits still have the germ (otherwise known as: whole grain!) so they are rich in fiber and nutrients; heirloom grains are independent from the commercial food system; and perhaps most importantly, they taste infinitely better.
So, if you're into it, visit the Anson Mills website and peruse their many varieties of "artisan mill goods from organic heirloom grains." Your mind might just get blown. If you live in Denver you can find Anson Mills products at Marczyk Fine Foods (in the freezer section, which seems weird, I know, but remember that nutrient-dense germ I was talking about? It contains oils that will go rancid over time if not kept cold). The variety I chose for this recipe is the Native Coarse Blue Corn grits. I'm quite sure you could get wonderful results using just about any good-quality grits in this recipe, but if you are motivated to get your hands on this particular variety I can guarantee you won't regret it. The blue corn, which is sourced by Anson Mills from the Cherokee Nation and is grown in the mountains of the Carolinas, tasted unlike any other kind of grits I've tried. They had a very earthy and almost chestnut-like flavor with a mildly sweet finish. The grits look a lot like any ol' coarse grain before you add water and then, all at once, they become this beautiful lavendar-blue hue that only intensifies as you cook them. Such a color is so uncommonly found in food that you can't help but be surprised when you see it!
Not being from the South, I have no loyalties to any specific method of preparation for shrimp and grits. When I encountered this innovative and somewhat atraditional recipe from the Food52 blog, originally appearing in the glorious cookbook The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, my curiosity was piqued. I used their genius idea for making homemade, salty, buttery, boozy shrimp paste as the springboard for this incredibly flavorful and delicious dish. Since it is springtime, I just had to incorporate some seasonal staples: Ramps and spinach. The ramps get blended into the shrimp paste to add a bright, pungent, garlicky flavor to the dish. The spinach is gently wilted with sliced andouille sausage and served atop the grits. I made some extra shrimp to place on top, but we had leftovers without the extra shrimp the next evening and I thought it was just as good and makes for a lighter meal. Since microgreens have become newly available in the market, I've been buying a container each week and garnishing practically everything with them! They're so beautiful and add a bright, herbaceous flavor to just about any dish. Everything comes together in one incredibly colorful, comforting, warm bowl. I can't think of anything that tastes more perfect on a blustery Spring evening!
Rainbow Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and Ramp Paste:
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
about 5 ramp stalks (one small bunch)
12 T salted butter (1 1/2 sticks), room temperature
1/3 cup good whiskey
juice of 1 small lemon (I used a Meyer)
good pinch of cayenne
plenty of salt and pepper
1/2 pound Coarse Ground Grits
2 1/2 cups water
2 1/2 cups or so of shrimp stock (or more water)
about 3/4 cup shrimp paste
8-12 cooked shrimp (optional)
microgreens, for garnish (optional_
Wilted Spinach with Andouille:
1 pound baby spinach, washed and tough stems removed
2 T salted butter
2 T olive oil
2 cooked andouille sausages, sliced
2-3 T shrimp and ramp paste
First, prep your grits. Place them in a bowl and cover with 2 1/2 cups of water. After the grains settle to the bottom, skim off the chaff and hulls that float to the surface and discard. If you have the time, allow the grits to soak overnight (this will dramatically reduce your cooking time but is not absolutely necessary if you don't mind tending to the grits for upwards of two hours).
Next, make the shrimp paste. In a large pan, add half the butter and heat over medium-high. Add shrimp (cook the optional extra 8-12 shrimp for the topping, at this point, and set aside) and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the shrimp is just-done, about 5-6 minutes. Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add whiskey, lemon juice, and cayenne to the pan and cook over medium-high, scraping the leftover bits of shrimp from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, until the sauce is reduced to the consistency of syrup. Season with salt and pepper.
Remove the shrimp tails, if they are still in tact, and add the shrimps with the reduced sauce to a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Add ramps and remaining salted butter and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse paste. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside the shrimp paste, keeping it at room temperature until ready to use.
Place shrimp stock (or water) in a small saucepan and keep simmering over low heat. Add the grits, with the water in which they were soaking, to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly and simmer the grits until the liquid looks starchy and slightly thickened, about 8 minutes. Cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Stir every 10 minutes or so, making sure to loosen any grains that stick to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Each time the grits become thick, add shrimp stock about 1/2 a cup or so at a time and continue cooking, adding at least 1 1/2 cups more liquid, until the grits are done. Cooking time will be about 50-60 minutes if your grits were soaked overnight, and about 1 1/2 to 2 hours if they weren't. You'll know when they're done when the grits are no longer starchy in the center. The grains should be a little toothsome but fairly soft and not chalky in texture.
Once grits are cooked, remove from heat. Stir in about 3/4 cup of the shrimp paste (or about half the batch) into the grits until combined and allow the flavors to sit together for about 10 minutes.
While the grits are resting, cook the spinach. In a large pan, add butter and oil and heat over medium-high. When butter is bubbling, add your sliced andouille and cook until browned, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add spinach (and extra 8-12 shrimp and a few tablespoons of shrimp paste and reduce heat to slightly above medium. Stir spinach continuously until it is just-wilted and soft, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Ladle the grits into a bowl, making a little well in the center for the spinach. Spoon the spinach and andouille into the grit wells and serve with extra shrimp on top (if using), garnished with microgreens.