The shrimp and grits at Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk Street in San Francisco whizzed me straight back to my Virginia childhood,
having lunch in the airy white basement dining room at the old (now sadly vanished) Botetourt Hotel in Gloucester Court House where Miss Ada and Miss Emmy served traditional Southern food made simply and very well.
Now grits – or cornmeal – is as basic in the American South as oatmeal in Scotland.
The name derives from the old English word “gryt” meaning coarse meal, originally referring to wheat and other porridges now known as grouts, but Southern grits has its origins in Native American stone ground corn. Cornmeal (and/or polenta) is very similar, available fine and coarse ground, boiled with water and/or milk and served with butter and cheese. Often allowed to cool and set, then cut into squares and fried or grilled, this makes a perfect accompaniment to shrimp, fried fish or chicken.
Brenda’s grits is as smooth and soft and creamy as fine cut oatmeal porridge made with milk and cooked gently through the night in an Aga oven. Enriched with cheddar cheese, then topped with sautéed shrimp, she serves it with a spicy tomato-bacon sauce on the side as fits her Cajun New Orleans’ origins. Spectacular.
The most famous recipe for shrimp and grits comes from Edna Lewis,
the Virginia born granddaughter of freed slaves who took her knowledge of the seasonal cooking of her home state and became a chef famous for her writing about the best of Southern food. A political activist as well, she became a darling of the New York arts world in the 1940’s and 50’s. Her three seminal cookbooks were: The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976) – a classic study which sits on the shelves of the best chefs - and In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988). With her associate Scott Peacock she wrote The Gift of Southern Cooking, (2003)
Lewis' many awards include “Who’s Who in American Cooking” (Cook’s Magazine,1986), “James Beard Living Legend” (the first such award, 1999) and “Grande Dame” (Les Dames d’Escoffier, 199). She died, aged 89, in 2006.
“People should leave grits alone” she said, taking a dim view of elaborate ingredients added to what was essentially a simple dish. Sadly it is impossible to find genuine grits in the UK; happily coarse ground cornmeal or polenta gives satisfactory results.
Edna Lewis’ classic grits recipe (adapted):
ALL YOU NEED IS:
2 cups/475ml water, or more as needed
2 cups/475ml milk, or more as needed
1 cup/237ml coarse ground cornmeal or polenta
¼ cup/120ml single cream (Lewis recommends “heavy cream”, but Britain’s double cream is much thicker – too rich for this dish in my view, but give it a go if you like)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1. Heat water and milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering.
2. Stir cornmeal/polenta into simmering water and milk. Cook gently, stirring often, until tender to the bite and thickened to the consistency of oatmeal. Continue stirring to keep from sticking and scorching. You may have to add additional milk and water.
3. Season generously with salt and stir in the cream and butter. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until serving. Serve hot.
(Note: for Brenda’s French Soul Food style grits, add grated mild cheddar to taste.)
Lewis’ recipe tops her grits with a generous spoonful of smooth fresh shrimp paste – her associate, Scott Peabody, suggests stirring it throughout and then resting for a few minutes to allow the flavours to blend.
Shrimp paste (adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking”)
8 ounces/228grams unsalted butter
1 pound/455grams medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup/60ml sherry
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a large frying pan, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter until it foams. Add the shrimp and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the shrimp are pink and cooked through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a food processor.
Return the pan to high heat. Add the sherry, lemon juice and cayenne and cook until reduced to 3 tablespoons. Pour the liquid over the shrimp and process until very smooth.
With the machine on, add the remaining butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process until smooth and silky. Transfer the shrimp paste to a serving bowl and let cool. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface and refrigerated for at least 1 day. Bring to room temperature before using.
NOTE: The shrimp paste can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to 1 week. It is delicious served on crackers with drinks.