There is not one iota of my being that is Southern...I was born and raised in Manitoba, Canada (north of the Dakotas, for those of you who had crappily taught Geography), which is distinctly north. Of just about everything. This is the land of road hockey, long and dark winters, and endless fields of canola. Beautiful in its own right, but very, very north.
So, when I first entered the South, I was in for, shall we say, a bit of cultural adjustment. While the full details of the story will be shared another time, when I was 18 I joined the US Navy. And after boot camp, I was sent to exotic Millington, TN (close to Graceland...score!) for "A" school. This being the military, I was sent on a bus full of other fresh scrubbed boot camp grads, who, for the first time in 9 weeks, could smoke, drink, and consort with the opposite gender. It was a rather...debauched bus trip. Anyway, when we finally stopped for dinner, it was in the middle of nowhere northern Tennessee at a Shoney's. Which is like IHOP, but with more red eye gravy and a higher incidence of being called "hon" by the waitresses. Nothing exotic about that per se. However, and I swear on my dogs AND the pound of bacon in the freezer that this is true, what was immediately next to Shoney's was.....Earl's Fur, Leather and Gun Shop. I shit you not. And yes, there WAS a high ratio of pick up trucks with rebel flags in the back window in their parking lot. I picked my jaw up off the ground, reassured myself that I had not done any known hallucinogens on the bus, and decided that I was a loooong way from home.
That, however, marked the beginning of my mysterious love of all things Southern (with the minor exception of the over riding political atmosphere). I want my iced tea sweet with lemon, a man with a Southern accent has more than once been my undoing, and while I have not ever tried to see if a Honda Civic could be outfitted with a gun rack, there is a part of me that longs for the slower pace and lush greenery of the American South. It could just be that it's about as opposite from where I was raised as is possible, or just romantic ideals from one too many Anne Rivers Siddons novels, but this Manitoba girl has long since caved to saying y'all far more frequently than "eh".
While there are a thousand foods that are distinctly Southern, and delicious, my current favorite is shrimp and grits. For those of you who are not fans of grits, or just think you don't like them, let me tell you that if you like polenta (and really, who doesn't?), then you like grits, you just don't know it yet. For all intents and purposes, they're the same thing. Ground corn, cooked for a long time in milk and water, seasoned as you please. And while they can be made sweet, plain or savory to suit the time of day or mood, I'm extremely partial to cheese grits. And when you serve them underneath a pile of hot and spicy shrimp with onions and tomatoes...heaven. And it's not just me that loves them...every time I make them, I am besieged by people who attack the stuff like my secret ingredient is black tar heroin. (It's not...I can hardly afford the shrimp, for crying out loud.)
I don't care where you're from...this is a recipe you need to try. It won't turn you into a Republican against your will, or imbue you with the knowledge of the words to "Carolina On My Mind". It will fill your belly, make you happy, and, if made properly, induce your friends to wash your car for you.
Spicy Shrimp & Cheesy Grits
(adapted from Cooking Light)
3 cups milk
1 cup water
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt, divided
1/4 tsp black pepper, divided
1 cup uncooked quick-cooking grits (They'll be in the cereal aisle by the oatmeal. Use polenta or corn meal if you can't find grits. And if you can't find quick-cooking, still use the same ingredients listed here, you're just going to have to cook them for about 30-40 minutes.)
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
4-6 slices thick cut bacon
1 lb peeled, deveined large shrimp
1 cup thinly sliced onion (I use red and white)
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp Sriracha (hot chile garlic sauce) or hot sauce of your choice, as much as you deem fit
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup green onion strips (optional)
- Combine milk, water, butter, 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer; gradually add grits, stirring constantly with a whisk. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 4 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat; stir in Parmesan.
- While the grits are doing their thing, cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove from pan, saving drippings. Crumble bacon. Eat at least one slice.
- Add shrimp to hot pan with reserved bacon drippings; cook two minutes on each side, or until pink. (I love a food that's color coded for doneness, don't you?) Remove shrimp from pan. Smack certain hands away from the cooked shrimp while threatening that there will be NO SHRIMP FOR YOU if you don't stop sneaking the damn things.
- Add onions to pan, adding a little olive oil if the bacon drippings have been soaked up by the shrimp. Saute 1-2 minutes, or until just becoming soft.
- Stir in bacon, tomatoes, remaining 1/4 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper; sautee 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. The goal here is to get the tomatoes to just start breaking down a little.
- Add shrimp, Sriracha, and pepper flakes; cook 1 minute or until shrimp are heated through.
- Serve over a large splat of cheese grits, and sprinkle the whole mess with green onions.
Yields: Ostensibly 4 servings. I say bullshit...2, tops.
Oh, and a warning about grits and polenta...that shit turns into Quikrete if you don't get it out of the pan pronto. To reheat leftovers, I usually fry them up in a little butter in a pan.