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Poached Shrimp & Grits with Mustard Greens

This post is cross-posted from our coffee company blog.  We put it there because this is about how to make awesome shrimp & grits from the Roasted Corn Grits we make at the Muddy Dog Roasting Company.  Enjoy!

This week’s farmers’ markets were, as always, a total immersion in excellent ingredients.  Among the many delicious offerings were coastal NC shrimp from Southport Seafood, and some really beautiful and tasty mustard greens from Fickle Creek Farm.   Both pair wonderfully with a nice, creamy polenta.  And since we just made a big batch of roasted grits a couple weeks ago, I thought this would be a great opportunity to post a recipe that uses them.

But first, two confessions.  In the past year, as we’ve been making our own grits, I’ve had a lot of occasion to try lots of different shrimp & grits recipes.  I try them everywhere, in hopes of being inspired to take my game to a new level.  What I’ve learned over all this shrimp & grit eating is that most of it is just, well, bad.  There’s a good reason so many people say they don’t like this dish – if my only experience was what I eat in most restaurants, I’d say I don’t like that dish, too.    There are definitely too many places starting with bad grits (startling that there’s still an assumption they’re all the same), dumping in a bunch of food service “cheddar cheese food”, adding some frozen, Asian shrimps spiced with a powdered spice mix, then cooking the life out it all and garnishing with jalapenos.  Hacks.  The second confession is that I read a lot of internet articles about shrimp & grits.  I’m rarely inspired, but this time was different – I came across a blog post that made me think, “Man, I have GOT to make that.”  So I filled in the substantial missing blanks from that post, made a modification or two to accommodate the non-meat eater in my house, and this is what we’re gonna show you here.  Be warned, the dish is simple, but it’s not quick.

Start with the grits.  For this meal, I used the batch of roasted grits we milled Halloween week (that’s the batch we’ve been selling for the past two weeks). They’re all white corn, roasted, then milled, for an awesome sweet and nutty flavor.  We’ll be bringing out some new corn varieties in the near future, so stay tuned!  Anyway, I know I sound like a grits shill, but trust me when I tell you I will never get rich selling these things, and they really are just VASTLY superior to anything else you can buy.  It’s worth your trouble, and the little bit of expense that’s required to get some of these grits.

There is no secret to great grits.  No shortcut, either, unfortunately, despite what you may here even from other small mills who have joined the never-ending quest for quick cooking grits (typically, artisan producers making quick cooking claims are simply milling finer, which causes texture to suffer).  Start with good, freshly milled corn, and slow cook ’em.  Yes, you can make edible grits in 30 minutes, it’s true.  But you cannot make World Class grits in that time.  Fortunately, they don’t require a great deal of active cooking, just an occasional stir.  So start at least an hour before you plan to eat, and two hours is better, with your choice of adult beverage, and enjoy the company of your family and/or friends while they simmer.

So for the technical instructions:  Two cups of grits (dry) will feed about eight people.  Add the grits to a medium saucepan.  Add a generous pinch of salt (optional).  Add about 7 cups of water.  Err on the dry side, it’s quicker to add liquid later than it is to cook ’em down if you used too much.  Now here’s a trick I learned from that previously mentioned blog post that I honestly would not have thought of on my own: add a bay leaf or two.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  And simmer away!  Stir every ten minutes or so, and when you’ve got them cooked and the texture is starting to become more firm, add about a cup of high-quality cheese of your choice, and maybe a little cream (I used a cup of buttermilk because I had it around).

Here’s the grits near the beginning of the cook cycle, with a bay leaf from India.
I added about a cup of mixed Manchego and Parmesan. Gouda works well, as does just about any high-quality cheese you like. I had also added a cup of buttermilk by this point – milk, cream, sour cream, creme fresh, etc., all work nicely. Use what you have.

Let’s stop for a brief aside: what’s the difference between grits and polenta?  This is a question that engenders debates with almost religious fervor.  Let’s start with what’s not different: they are both ground corn.  Some folks will tell you grits are nixtamalized (recognize the core of the word tamale in there?), or basically soaked in an alkaline solution to make nutrients more bioavailable (and secondarily, give it appropriate texture for some traditional foods).  Since the advent of dietary niacin supplements, this practice has largely abandoned, although I do intend to experiment with it this winter.  No, about the only difference really is particle size, and there is no agreement over what the particle size of “polenta” should be.  Generally, Italians, and northern US Americans (who were influenced by Italians) say is should be smaller, approaching cornmeal.  I tend to like a toothier polenta, hence I use what southerners call “grits”, and I name them somewhat interchangeably.  Some will also argue that grits are soft (like hot cereal), and polenta is firm.  Except when it’s “soft polenta”.  Confused?  You should be.  There’s no right answer.  The bottom line is, make what you like, call it whatever you want.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

While the grits are cooking, clarify some butter, as that’s what we’ll use to poach shrimp.  Clarifying butter is easy.  GENTLY melt two sticks in a small saucepan.  Remove from heat as soon as melted.  Allow milk solids to settle to the bottom (this separation is why alfredo never reheats properly).  Skim the foam from the top, add it to the grits.  Slowly and carefully, pour off the clarified butted, taking care not to allow the solids to transfer.  If you’re really particular, you can use cheesecloth to strain the solids, but that’s a waste of time and cheesecloth.  When you’ve got all the clarified oil poured off, add the milk solids to the grits.  No waste.

Now poach the shrimp.  Add the butter to a shallow pan.  Throw in a bay leaf and a smashed garlic clove.  Bring to a low temperature – about 170F.  Seriously, that’s it.  We are NOT frying shrimp here, we’re poaching them.  Add the shrimps.  Adjust the temperature to maintain 170F.  OK, you can go as high as 200F is you really need to.  Then leave the shrimps alone.  When one side looks cooked (maybe 5 minutes), turn them.  Cook another 5 minutes. If you keep the heat low, it’s difficult to overcook in any reasonable period of time.

Poaching shrimp. Poaching. NOT frying.

While the shrimp are poaching, wilt the greens in hot oil (steal a little clarified butter).  I fry a couple raisins in the oil first – they reconstitute, and people can’t figure out what they are.  Sweet, delicious, and a complete mystery.  Fun stuff.

When you’ve got it all done, plate by starting with a few greens, adding polenta, topping with shrimp, drizzle with some of the clarified butter poaching liquid, and garnish as you like.  Enjoy!

Shrimp & Grits. Only good.


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