When gifts from land and sea mingle on a plate, the result is usually mouthwatering. When those gifts receive thoughtful, creative treatment from the best chefs of the New South, the result is an iconic dish that continues to surprise while withstanding the test of time. Shrimp and grits is exactly that kind of dish. Once the breakfast of Southern champions, this time-honored, seafood-and-grain super duo has transcended the confines of morning meals to grace brunch, lunch, dinner and late-night tables.
There are few foods more quintessentially Southern than grits. While the dish's roots likely hail back to the Native Americans, no one is certain who first pounded the daylights out of dried corn, mixed it with water and simmered it to a thick, nourishing mush. Eventually, butter made its way into the pot as did milk, meat drippings and other seasonings. Using sea or "beach" water, Lowcountry folk routinely cooked up breakfast bowls of briny grits. But when they added sweet, tiny creek shrimp into the mix, these rustic culinarians set in motion the first waves of a gastronomic movement destined to define the state's food scene.
The basics of South Carolina's signature dish have remained constant - fresh shrimp and stone-ground grits - but the versatility of this pairing lends itself beautifully to interpretation. And the proof is in the sampling. Here are a few examples, culled from the expansive line-up of South Carolina restaurants, that demonstrate the many ways shrimp and grits are enjoyed across the state.
Some restaurants pair the dish with greens:
Executive Chef Travis Grimes uses indigenous and local ingredients to create authentic Southern dishes, following the philosophy of Husk founding chef and James Beard Award-winner Sean Brock. That means grits get star treatment at the award-winning restaurant, where tradition meets trend and the larder teems with a dragoon of indigenous Southern products. Slow-cooked, heirloom corn grits, from mills like Edisto Island's Marsh Hen Mill, are more than mere foundation for HUSK's variation of shrimp and grits. They are the heart and soul of the dish, their rich, grainy earthiness blooming beneath succulent shrimp, a smoky tomato and ham broth, roasted peppers, garden greens and a bit of bacon or ham hock. If respect for Southern food heritage has a flavor, this is it.
Other eateries complementing their shrimp and grits with greens:
RedFish in Hilton Head features Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits with fried okra, sautéed kale and chorizo gravy.
Flipside Restaurant in Rock Hill features Flipside Shrimp and Grits with roasted shrimp, spinach Andouille sausage, caramelized onions, charred peppers and tomatoes.
Some restaurants use exotic flavors in their dishes:
ACME Lowcountry Kitchen, Isle of Palms
This no-frills beach eatery distinguishes itself with a dinner menu boasting 10 (yes - 10!) variations of shrimp and grits. Go with a group and customize your own shrimp and grits tasting. Some of the more interesting choices include:
Barbecue: sautéed shrimp, fried grits, scallions, bacon, onion straws, smoked Gouda and barbecue sauce,
Island: Jerk shrimp served over coconut cream grits and surrounded by pineapple salsa,
And The Pioneer: fried shrimp and braised short ribs over grits with a sweet onion port demi-glace.
Of course, the shrimp is local and fresh, and the Adluh Mill grits, sublime.
Other eateries where shrimp and grits are accented by exotic flavors:
Sol Kitchen in Mount Pleasant features Creamy Chipotle Shrimp & Grits with roasted poblano peppers and smoked gouda grit cakes.
Some recipes use spicy sausage:
Tubb's Shrimp and Fish Company, Florence
Tubb's is the funky little seafood shack that could - and did - deliver a steady supply of fresh seafood to the Pee Dee. From its humble origins as a pop-up seafood market, this eatery's shrimp and grits admirably holds its own against the offerings of better-known Lowcountry giants. The New Orleans-inspired dish is a spicy marriage of saucy Shrimp Etouffe, Andouille sausage and house-cured lardons spooned over a bed of creamy stone-ground grits. The Pee Dee region is within close enough proximity to the coast that trucking a fresh catch inland each day is not only doable, but good for business. During peak lunch and dinner hours, be prepared to sit a spell on the joggling board while you wait for a table in this former convenience mart.
Other restaurants where shrimp and grits are studded with spicy sausage:
Page's Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant serves a decadent version with battered and fried cheddar grits, pan-seared jumbo shrimp and a ladle of rich, smoky andouile sausage cream sauce.
Skull Creek Boathouse on Hilton Head Island garners rave reviews for its Carolina Shrimp and Grits -- stone ground grits with sauteed shrimp, smoked sausage and a generous drizzle of tasso ham gravy.
Some versions include cheese or pimento cheese:
Midnight Rooster, Hartsville
The Midnight Rooster in quaint downtown Hartsville ups the Southern kick of their version of shrimp and grits with a generous dollop of house-made pimento cheese. Blizzard Branch Milling of Middendorf supplies the grits that are cooked up then spiked with parmigiano reggiano and a touch of Tabasco sauce. A scattering of crispy bacon bits and green onion add pizzazz and visual appeal. If you're there for Saturday brunch, the spicy Bloody Mary makes a lip-smacking accompaniment.
Other restaurants that spike their shrimp and grits with cheese:
Wicked Tuna in Murrells Inlet features Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits with jumbo shrimp in Creole sauce and Andouille sausage served over cheese grits.
Callie's Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston regularly features Shrimp and Grits in a biscuit bowl with your choice of house-made pimento cheese or shredded cheddar along with other accompaniments.
If you want to make your own:
Of course, you can always make your own favorite version of shrimp and grits. If you have access to fresh shrimp and good stone-ground grits, that's half the battle. If you're adding vegetables, "fresh" is also your buzz word. Making shrimp and grits is the perfect task for practicing "mise en place" (chef-speak for organizing your ingredients and utensils), which will enable you to keep the preparation flow going and avoid overcooking the shrimp.
Here is a tasty recipe from Marsh Hen Mill that uses simple ingredients and a splash of white wine to set off the fresh flavors.
Marsh Hen Shrimp and Grits
(Serves 4 to 6)
3 cups water
1 cup Marsh Hen Mill stone-ground grits
1 ½ cups half and half
Salt to taste
Dollop of butter
Handful finely chopped tomatoes and onions
1 lb. peeled shrimp
½ cup white wine
Bring water to a boil, and add grits slowly. Cover. Reduce heat to low, and stir occasionally. As grits thicken, add half and half. Continue to cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Put dollop of butter in frying pan, and sauté tomatoes and onions over medium-high heat until they begin to caramelize. Toss in shrimp. Using a wooden spoon, continue to stir shrimp, tomatoes and onions until shrimp turn pink. Splash in ½ cup white wine, and continue to stir until shrimp are done and wine has reduced. Plate grits. Pour entire shrimp and gravy over grits and serve.