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Joni Woolf: Shrimp and grits — a new Southern tradition

While visiting in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, recently, my daughter Carey and I had ample opportunity to check out seafood restaurants. Actually, we were being treated by two other adults who had two children, and their taste buds led to an inordinate amount of fried shrimp, fried fish, fried fish sandwiches, French fries — no greens in sight. But on the last night of the visit, my nephew took us to Michael’s Seafood on the island, and it lived up to our expectations — and then some. He had shrimp scampi; I ordered a pasta dish (I thought I had had my fill of seafood); and Carey chose shrimp and grits. I really like that combination, and have seen it prepared several different ways. Her order came with a grits cake in the center of a pasta dish, surrounded by a creamy sauce and topped with a generous amount of shrimp. She thought it was delicious.
During the meal, we compared notes, and she commented, “You wouldn’t like this as much — too much liquid.” And she’s right. As much as I like fish and seafood dishes, I do not enjoy those in liquid bases, like chowders, soups, bouillabaisse — any dish where the liquid dominates and the fish flavor (in my opinion) saturates everything. I’m glad she enjoyed her “best night out.” I, on the other hand, came home and began studying various shrimp and grits recipes, looking for a new one that might surpass my favorite.
Years ago, someone had told me about a meal of shrimp and grits — again in North Carolina, but this time in Chapel Hill — at a restaurant called Crook’s Corner. Fortunately (or otherwise) we live in the digital age, and any recipe known to man or woman can be found on the Internet, so I went searching, and found Crook’s Corner Shrimp and Grits. It is a recipe that never fails. If you follow the directions, which aren’t difficult, it comes out perfect every time; the grits are firm; there is no fishy liquid sloshing around, and the presentation is attractive.
But because I love to consider new ways of doing things, I went to two classic cookbooks: Dora Charles’ new one called “A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen,” and Virginia Willis’s “Bon Appetit, Y’All.” Both sounded good; Charles cooks her grits for an hour, and tends them with great care. Her recipe has fewer ingredients, but all of them (including white wine) add to the flavor. The Willis recipe, unlike the others, includes tomatoes and Vidalia onions, and sounds delightful. She even leaves the tails on the shrimp because she likes how they look. I think I will be a little conservative this time, and stick with the Crook’s Corner recipe. It was created by the late Bill Neal, the chef at Crook’s Corner, and his successor, executive chef Bill Smith, has continued the tradition. I think you’ll like it. Then, if you’d like to try the others, drop me a line!

Crook’s Corner Shrimp and Grits
2 cups water
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup regular grits
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
3 bacon slices
1 pound medium-size shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup sliced green onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
Lemon wedges

Bring first 4 ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan; gradually whisk in grits. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes or until thickened. Add cheddar cheese and next 4 ingredients. Keep warm.
Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp; remove bacon, and drain on paper towels, reserving 1 tablespoon drippings in skillet. Crumble bacon, and set aside.
Sprinkle shrimp with pepper and salt; dredge in flour.
Saute mushrooms in hot drippings in skillet 5 minutes or until tender. Add green onions and saute 2 minutes. Add shrimp and garlic and saute 2 minutes, or until shrimp are lightly brown. Stir in chicken broth, lemon juice and hot sauce and cook two more minutes, stirring to loosen particles from bottom of skillet.
Serve shrimp mixture over hot cheese grits. Top with crumbled bacon; serve with lemon wedges. Four generous servings.

It’s a recipe that turns out perfectly every time. Good to the eye, and good to the palate, it receives compliments from old and young alike. Try it the next time you’re craving seafood, and want something different — and delicious. Great for the family, this is also a fine recipe for entertaining friends. Just keep doubling or tripling the ingredients till you have the right amount. Bon appetit!

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net