It’s my go-to winner for Sunday Brunch, and sometimes just whenever there’s some enticing fresh local shrimp at the market.

With Mothers Day coming up I would be shopping for my shrimp & grits supplies this week, however with Covid precautions our visit with family will be via FaceTime.
But Covid be damned, I’m still making my shrimp & grits. And today it shall be served in a big enameled dish instead of in cute individual bowls.

A thousand times I’ve been asked for my recipe, but the fact is I don’t really have one. It just sortof comes together with what I have. But to satisfy the curious I suppose I’ll attempt to write out the motions, and I won’t even force onto my dear readers the entire history of the dish – that will come afterwards.

However you will be receiving the recipe in a conversational format – that’s the only way I know. 
Recipes aren’t exactly in the mission statement of Charleston Livability, but hey, here goes.

A dish of shrimp & grits

– The Grits –

As the base of the dish, the taste and consistency of the grits have to be perfect. 

Always start the grits first – the longer they cook the better. Keep in mind in that grits require constant attention to keep from clumping or burning, even on low heat. 

Update 2022:
Usually I’m just mindful to give the grits a good stir every couple of minutes while I’m preparing everything else, however the nature of Sunday Brunch in the Lowcountry usually means a kitchen full of friends pouring mimosas – so for those times I picked up one of these gadgets, and it works like a champ.

In choosing the grits to buy at the market, just grab a good stone ground, yellow or white doesn’t really matter. Just stay away from the ‘quick’ or ‘instant’ nonsense – get the good stuff. 

These are the brands I usually keep on hand in my pantry:

The prepare the grits, feel free to peruse the package instructions and let’s go ahead and acknowledge together that the proportions are sortof ballparking it, and the technique is a bit oversimplified… but that’s the nature of a proper grit.

You’ll be customizing and adding to this your own tastes – it’s not complicated at all, you just end up eyeballing and tasting as you go, the way it should be.

The general ratio is about 1:4 grits:water, a fine enough place to begin. I’ll sometimes mix the water with chicken broth.
A cup of cooked grits will serve two for a satisfying meal, or split more for a few small plates or h’ors d’oeuvres. 

I’ll base the rest of this “recipe” on the 1 cup of grits portion. 
Scale as needed.

Go ahead and get the water boiling, good and salted, and with a thick pat of good butter. Once it’s at a boil, grab a cooking spoon and begin stirring the water as you pour in the grits, sortof slowly. Reduce that heat to low, cover, and resign yourself to stirring this premature goodness every couple of minutes – scraping the sides and bottom really well – even moreso at the beginning.

This is going to take a good half hour to 45 in all. Pause your other tasks every couple of minutes to stir – by the time you’re done with the rest, the grits will be ready.

– The Shrimp –

Source good shrimp, the fresher the better. In the Lowcountry I can bicycle from my house down the street to Abundant Seafood, a sustainably-minded local outfit. 
Elsewhere I go to Mount Pleasant Seafood on Shem Creek (doesn’t get much fresher than that), or to Crosby’s Seafood just off Folly Beach.

But time for truth: more often than not I use frozen shrimp that’s patiently waiting in my freezer, mostly because I gather my wares a few days in advance and well, fresh shrimp is more of a day-of product if you know what I mean.

However that doesn’t mean I still can’t get good quality shrimp in the freezer section: I choose North American wild-caught shrimp, usually from Costco though the local supermarkets carry a decent selection as well.

Choose shrimp that are on the larger side: 31/40 or 26/30 are both fine – 41/50 and 51/60 are too small. 
For the amount needed with 1 cup of grits, I would use probably one pound of uncooked shrimp. 

Once the grits are going, go ahead and get the shrimp peeling out of the way. 
Pro tip: always ask someone nearby if they really like peeling shrimp, as you may be able to pass off this chore.
Regardless, go to the sink and peel the shrimp properly, removing all the scales and the mud vein with a fork or something (this little tool is a handy upgrade). 

Rinse them well, and set them in a bowl somewhere to dry on a towel.

– The Gravy –

Here’s where we get to work.
Gather your chopped vegetables and meat:

  • a medium onion, chopped small but chunky – I always use white onions
  • a couple stalks of celery, chopped small but chunky
  • half a bell pepper, chopped small
  • half a pound or so of a fatty ham meat, like bacon (trimmed), tasso/prosciutto, or something like Kielbasa diced up

Take your widest skillet – preferably not nonstick (we want to burn stuff a little) – and butter/oil it up with a good medium hot heat. Toss in the onions, celery, bell peppers, and meat, and set them on their way. This is a good time for some base seasoning: I like to use garlic and onion powders, a few taps of Old Bay, and taragon. Stir and sauté a few minutes until the veggies soften a bit and the meat has rendered a good amount of fat. When they’re about a minute from done, add the garlic and sauté for not more than a minute, careful to not let it burn.

Remove the pan’s contents to a side bowl, mindful to leave all the oily fond in the pan. Hopefully your pan will be left with lots of little brown bits swirling around some reserved oil and fat.

Two easy options here for the shrimp:

  • sauté them right in this here pan
  • bake them

Personally I’m great with both ways, however for shrimp & grits I tend to prefer the latter and here’s why:

While I generally prefer shrimp to be cooked hot and fast like on a hibachi, the oven-baked slow-ish method produces surprisingly good results for tender, not overcooked prawns. As long as you don’t overcook them.

Also, I need this time to prepare the most delicate, precise, time-intensive culinary attribute to this dish: the gravy. 

So you could either (1) sauté the shrimp in the same pan, losing time, and also some of that precious fond/oil goo that is the gravy base 
(2) place an oil-sprayed baking rack into a pan, lay the shrimps out onto it, and bake at like 350ºF until they’re all pinkish, or (3) if you wish, break out a second pan to sauté the shrimp – this is nice if you love multitasking.

You do you.

Regardless, season the shrimps with salt and pepper prior to, and be sure there’s a little oil when cooking.

Onto the gravy: That precious pan with the oils and fond leftover from cooking the veggies and meat – this is the base. There should be a decent amount of oil/fat – a couple tablespoons I guess? If it looks short then add a pat or two butter/swirl of oil to get it right. 
Warm up the pan to medium-low and grab the all-purpose flour and a whisk.
First timers: you are about to embark upon the journey of making a proper roux.

Once the oils/fats are good and reasonably hot, start sprinkling in the flour, just a little a time, furiously whisking in with the oils while scraping up the fond.

Keep adding flour a little at a time while whisking continuously – after a while you’ll be whisking around clumps of greasy flour. Keep breaking them up and moving them around, lower the heat a little, and keep smelling it. Add flour just until the clumps have a cookie dough appearance, not outwardly greasy.

Raw flour has a funky smell but as the roux forms over these few minutes, it takes on a pleasant nutty smell. 
When the raw flour smell is gone and your pan is just a bunch of clumps that look more doughy than greasy, pull the pan.

To constitute the gravy, grab your chicken stock, perhaps accompanied by a heavy splash of dry white wine or sherry.

The pan may be back on low here: With your whisk in hand, begin adding the liquid a little at a time, whisking constantly, dissolving the clumps into liquid. Keep doing this until that gravy is just the right consistency.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Bringing it Together

Mind the shrimp, you’ll know when they’re done – set aside.

Keep the gravy at a status quo on low heat, add a little water every now and then to keep it at the right consistency.

Now we finish the grits: you’ve been stirring them for 30-45 minutes and now they’re a thick slurry but don’t look especially creamy. 

Go grab your cheese, whatever your taste. I often use a lot of freshly grated parmesan and perhaps a bit of whatever else is in  the fridge. Stir it in nicely, and mind the consistency – you need to add milk or cream. I’ll often use a good amount of oat milk or almond creamer or something, but any creamy business will suffice. Keep adjusting until it looks and tastes perfect. 

Taste and adjust seasonings. I personally like my grits garlicky and cheesy, with lots of parsley ad/or chives.

Once the grits are just right, spoon into bowls. Add a helping of gravy, then several shrimp on top. Drizzle shrimp with a bit more gravy, and serve those bangers.