Thursday, April 9, 2009

Grits, pollenta, say po-tato, I say po-tahto

Question: is it unbearably low class to open a can of pop, take a few swigs, then pour rum directly into the can to make an instant cocktail? Yeah, I think so, too. But perhaps it's also ecologically friendly. I'm already going to recycle the can, so why dirty a glass and waste the water/add detergent guilt to wash it? Shouldn't Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio send me congratulatory emails? Plus, it's just quick and convenient. It's not lazy or trashy, it's thrifty and resourceful. Refreshingly unassuming, even. Until one's husband takes a sip of one's altered beverage and almost does a spit take of surprise, that is.

So my fresh ingredient dinner I had so been craving featured a lovely organic sweet baby greens salad with sea salt and cracked pepper croutons. Makes it sound posh, doesn't it? The rest of the meal just wasn't as fresh, because by the time dinner came around I had already enjoyed two meals beefed up (pardon the pun) with fruit and veg and no longer felt so vitamin-deprived. We made Spicy Shrimp with Cheesy Grits.

Shrimp and Grits is one of those recipes where no matter what you put in it, you can hardly go wrong, but everyone will tell you that you did. It's a southern dish, which I believe is particularly known in Charleston, South Carolina. Travelers will have different memories of it, some of which will be accurate and some will not, but will argue vehemently that the version they had didn't have parsley in it so yours is inauthentic sludge. People will trot out genealogy charts to show that their second cousin married a man whose sister once lived in Charleston, and she made it with white grits, not yellow, and she should know. So there.

(This phenomenon, of course, isn't unique to this dish. People get weirdly self-righteous when it comes to certain recipes. Chili, for example.)

I don't pretend that our version is authentic anything. For one thing, I've only ever had shrimp and grits at TGI Friday's here in Erie, which gives me zero authority... particularly since I actually only had a taste of Darling Husband's plate. We were originally going to share--I got dish A, he got the shrimp and grits, and we would split both--but when his came he no longer was interested much in sharing. As consolation, we came home and tried to remake it a few days later. That was several months ago, so our memories were even fuzzier.

Our shrimp and grits started with grits, of course. Grits, polenta, mush... it's all basically the same, which is cornmeal. We put water and milk in a pan with a little pat of butter, brought to a boil, added the cornmeal and cooked until it was thick and didn't taste like crunchy dried corn. We added a bunch of cheddar, salt and pepper, and a splash of buttermilk (still trying to use it up!) to keep it from hardening into cement.

In a large skillet, I browned some andouille I had cut into coins, then removed from the pan. In the renderings I cooked several large cloves of garlic, chopped, about half of an onion, also chopped, and three hungarian peppers, sliced into rings. We let it all soften and the flavors married nicely, particularly after the addition of some hot sauce. Pushing the veggies to the sides of the pan, we slid the shrimp in and let them start to get pink and happy. The andouille was next to join the party and everything was stirred together to come to temperature. We only added a touch of salt and pepper, since the andouille had so much flavor. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I added any pepper. It didn't need it. We tasted the shrimp mixture, and it was grand.

Have you ever had one of those times, however, where your dish is finished but you just keep playing with it anyway? You start throwing extra stuff in somewhat willy-nilly, not because the dish truly needs it but because you can't quite stop yourself? I had put in jarred piquillo peppers and talked my husband into a little cream for the sauce before he stopped me and took away my wooden spoon.

We served the shrimp mixture over the grits and my oh my, it was good. A bit spicy, but with different kinds of spice, and great flavor all over it. The grits were lose but not runny, thick but not gluey. It may or may not have been anything like what you'd get in the south, but here in PA it was yummy.

Is that the key? The further away from the epicenter you are, the less anyone can call you out? If you served me something and told me it was authentic Aboriginal stew just like they make in Australia, I'd take your word for it. On the other hand, I'm an hour and a half away from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY. I know what a wing is and isn't supposed to look and taste like. Don't you dare put a breading on your chicken wing and call it buffalo! (Gina and Pat Neely, as well as Bobby Flay who should know better...)

But I'm 12 hours and 17 minutes (722 miles by Google Maps) away from Charleston and I say I made shrimp and grits and I do declare them to have been tasty.

Dessert will be featured in a guest blog, as Darling Husband used his dried cherries, fresh ginger and chestnut puree to make--well, I'll let him tell you. It was awesome, though.


  1. Love your "distance from the epicenter" theory. I maintain that State College, being plumb in the center of the state, is Pennsylvania's boundary between East & West PA food. You can't get a real Philly cheese steak west of State College, nor can you expect decent wings east of there. (I could be wrong about the wings, however. I might have had the best wings ever recently, delivered from Roma Pizza & Pasta, which is a mini-chain of 19 shops in and round Nashville, owned by a man from Jordan.)

  2. Really? I am intrigued! Tell us more about these Nashville wonders!!

  3. There might be something to this State College theory. Cause I can definitely attest that Harrisburg/Hershey is Eastern PA food territory. The cheesesteaks are great, but the wings are utter crap.

    But maybe my mistake was not buying them from middle eastern men...? Tell us more of these mystical Nashville wings!

  4. What's to tell. We were tired, it was a warm Saturday night and the local Mexican place was crowded and noisy. So we bought a bottle of wine and ordered wings and pizza delivered to the hotel. The wings were so good (well done, but not dry; hot, but not on fire; spicy and flavorful) we ordered them again the next night, this time with pasta and antipasto. You haven't tasted Italian food until you've had authentic Jordanian.