Friday, September 4, 2009

Pamlico Sound Shrimp & Anson Mills Grits

After breakfast at the Pier we headed further south to Wanchese, a tiny fishing village which, along with Manteo, makes up the two towns on Roanoke Island, location of the first (and failed) attempt in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an American colony. Wanchese Harbor is home to all commercial fishing boats in the area and where millions of pounds of seafood pass through a year. All I needed was one pound of shrimp for dinner and what I bought at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest was fresh from Pamlico Sound, a few miles away.

For dinner I was making a classic Southern dish – shrimp and grits. My mom is a fan of grits, but I’m more or less indifferent. I can’t say I’ve ever had a great bowl of grits, but in the spirit of regional eating, I wanted to give it a shot.

To get this meal right I needed the best ingredients I could get my hands on. The fresh-off-the-boat Outer Banks shrimp was taken care of in Wanchese. When it came to the grits, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve. Before leaving New York I ordered a bag of Antebellum coarse white grits from South Carolina’s Anson Mills. I reasoned if top chefs like Thomas Keller and Alice Waters are smitten with their organic, heirloom grains, cold-milled in pre-Civil War tradition, they must be worth the extra effort and expense to order and ship. While I was on their site placing my order (you won’t find their products in a store; the grains are milled only when an order is placed) I discovered quite a bit of history and realized impressive chefs or not, this was going to be special. I was off to a great start, or so I hoped; if I got the cooking part down, the meal ought to be a home run.

In Antebellum South Carolina, plantations each bred their own, distinct variety of corn by following the Native American tradition of crossing mill corn (corn which is left in the field to ripen, dry out, and get starchy) with sweet corn (the soft and sugary kind we eat off the cob in the summer). Once crossed, this becomes known as dent corn, the premier corn for making grits in the South. Back then, dent corn was kept cold and milled only as needed. As generations passed, the small back-road farmers, kitchen gardeners and bootleggers lost interest in growing these unique corn crops and the varieties threatened to vanish. Today virtually all grits are made from production corn and milled far in advance of eating which leaves it lacking the depth of flavor and freshness of its heirloom predecessors.

This is where Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts stepped in. Having worked as an architect for three decades in Charleston he switched career gears after listening to his South Carolina born-and-raised mother recollect the wonderful dishes she grew up eating but couldn’t recreate because of the inferior, mass-produced grits available in the market. After some investigating, Roberts discovered the old corn varieties that made Southern food heritage so rich were disappearing. And so began his journey to resurrect old strains of corn, known for their texture and flavor, from extinction. While Anson Mills is based in Columbia, SC, Roberts works with hundreds of farmers up and down the East Coast to grow not only organic heirloom corn, but other native organic heirloom grains as well, such as rice and wheat.

I could go on and on; the Anson Mills tale is a fascinating one, rich in history and Southern culture, not to mention of a man’s desire to do something right and do it well. Their website is a goldmine of interesting historical information and recipes for traditional Southern food. In fact, this post would have been finished much sooner if I hadn’t gotten so caught up in the wonderful stories and lore!

Shrimp & Grits
From the Anson Mills website

I made this exactly as their recipe said (minus the bay leaf – we were out) and it was fantastic. Yes, a home run! I wouldn’t change a thing.

1 pound medium-sized, shell-on shrimp
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, small dice
1 small stalk celery, small dice
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
4 cups spring or filtered water
1 teaspoon tomato paste
3 full sprigs fresh thyme
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole, cracked black peppercorns
1 strip lemon peel
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon flour
2 ounces thick smoked bacon or real country ham, minced (3 tablespoons)
2 large shallots, minced (1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 scallion, white and green part, thinly sliced
1 recipe hot, freshly prepared Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse or Carolina Quick Grits
Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the shells. Dry the shrimp between layers of paper towels and refrigerate until ready to use. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, onion, celery, and garlic and sauté until the shells are crisp and the aromatics tender, 10 minutes. Add the water, tomato paste, thyme, bay, peppercorns, and lemon peel. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the stock is flavorful and reduced, about 1 hour. Strain the stock into a small saucepan (there should be about 1 1/2 cups), and keep hot.

While the stock is cooking, mash the butter and flour into a smooth paste in a small bowl and set aside.

Sauté the bacon or ham in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Move it to the periphery of the skillet and increase the heat to medium. Arrange the shrimp in a single layer and sear until pink. Sprinkle the shallots over the shrimp, toss, and cook until the shrimp is done, about one minute. Add salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Using tongs, transfer the shrimp to a warm plate. Add the hot stock to the skillet and bring to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the reserved butter and flour mixture. Cook until thickened, about 20 seconds. Return the shrimp to the pan and taste sauce for seasoning.

To serve, spoon the hot grits into shallow bowls. Top with shrimp and sauce. Sprinkle with chopped scallions.

Serves 4 to 6

Antebellum Coarse Grits
From the Anson Mills website

I’ve never had anything quite like these grits before. The creamy, chewy texture reminded me of both oatmeal and risotto and yet the pronounced corn flavor tasted like polenta. I have no doubt this is what all grits are meant to taste like, but don’t. I used the slow cooker method, followed the directions given, and the grits were cooked perfectly.

1 cup (6 ounces) Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Grits (white or yellow)
Spring or filtered water
Fine sea salt
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


For a slow cooker:
Place the grits in the slow cooker and cover them with 3 cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the vessel, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover the slow cooker and turn the heat setting to high. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about two hours and ten or 15 minutes. (Cook times in slow cookers may vary slightly depending on the capacity of the individual cooker and its heat settings.) Season with 1 teaspoon salt and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.

For saucepan cookery:
Place the grits in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover them with 2 ½ cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the pan, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature. Note: If you have not soaked the grits, cover them with 2 1/2 cups water, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls as directed above.

Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the first starch takes hold, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups water in a small saucepan and keep hot. Cook the grits, covered, over low heat, stirring every 10 minutes or so, and adding small amounts of the hot water to the grits when they become thick and the spoon can stand upright, about 1 1/2 cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 or 90 minutes, depending on whether or not they were soaked. Add 1 teaspoon salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, uncover the pot and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

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