We will never know who invented shrimp and grits. It was likely a hungry, resourceful cook along the coast in the Low Country, where both shrimp and grits were common and plentiful. The earliest records of the recipe describe a very simple dish served as a humble breakfast, little more than fresh shrimp added to a pot of hot grits cooked in clean, brackish beach water.
Over the years, shrimp and grits got fancier, migrated to the dinner table, and became ubiquitous in Southern restaurants. Perhaps no version is more renowned than the one that the late Bill Neal created for Crook’s Corner, the landmark restaurant in Chapel Hill. The dish became famous after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times. It’s still wildly popular, and Crook’s has served it in the late chef’s style now for more than 25 years.
Yield: 4 servings
6 bacon slices, diced
1 pound medium unpeeled, raw shrimp
¼ cup sauce flour (such as Wondra or Shake & Blend), seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
2 cups sliced fresh white button mushrooms
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup chopped green onions
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Tabasco sauce to taste (four shakes!)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup stone-ground grits
1 cup Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
For the cheese grits: In a medium saucepan, bring salted water to a boil over medium-high heat; gradually whisk in grits. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes, or until thickened. Stir in Cheddar cheese and remaining ingredients. Hold in a warm place or on top of a double boiler over simmering water.
Peel shrimp; devein, if desired. Rinse and pat dry.
In a large nonstick skillet, cook bacon over medium heat 10 minutes or until crisp; remove bacon, but save all of the grease.
Dust the shrimp with the seasoned flour. In the large skillet, begin to sauté the shrimp in the bacon grease over high heat. Turn the shrimp, and then add the mushrooms. Let the mushrooms cook a moment, then begin tossing in the skillet, as for a stir-fry. Pour off some of the grease if it appears too oily.
Cook for a minute or two more, until the shrimp and mushrooms appear to be done and have browned a little. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute, shaking the pan vigorously. Add the lemon juice and Tabasco, and cook 2 more minutes, stirring to loosen particles from the bottom of the skillet. Add the scallions and toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon shrimp mixture over hot cheese grits; sprinkle with bacon.
Note: We learned that the shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner inspires all sorts of variations, and we mistakenly printed one that veered from the original (“The Taste of Right Here,” April, page 130). This is the corrected recipe for the restaurant’s famous dish.