Genius Recipes

Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock's Shrimp Grits

By • April 20, 2012 • 21 Comments

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Every week, FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Shrimp and grits get to know each other better.

shrimp & grits

- Kristen

We outsiders must be told that shrimp and grits are an iconic partnership, a daily breakfast, and a soul-feeding staple.

We take the insiders' word for it, we politely taste, and even like it -- but we don't innately understand why these two ingredients were born for each other, why there would be a whole cookbook written about their union, why the 1980s saw every nouveau Southern chef reimagining them as truffled shrimp with grits soufflé and the like.

grits

Like peanut butter and jelly or radishes and butter, to the uninitiated, shrimp and grits might as well have been matched up at random -- a lucky blind date.

Whether they were destined or not, the two came together in a particular place and time: here, it was coastal areas of the American South with ready access to fresh shrimp and cheap corn grits. To those who live there, it's a perfect dish that couldn't make more sense, or taste more like home.

The same could be said of the pair who created this genius version of the dish. Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock met in 1988 when she was 73 and he was 26.

the gift of southern cooking

Both were talented chefs with the preservation of Southern foodways at heart -- they became best friends and cooking partners, wrote a cookbook together in 2003, and lived together for the last six years of her life. Writers named them the "Odd Couple of Southern Cooking", but to anyone who met them or tasted their food, there was nothing odd about them at all.

Like many of the recipes in their book, this one is a little bit him and a little bit her -- and that much better because of it. The method of cooking the grits is the one Peacock grew up with in Alabama, but of the shrimp paste, Peacock says, "I did not know such a thing existed until I met her."

grits  shrimp

The first time he remembers making this dish with her was for her 75th birthday party in Seaside, Florida. At the time they were serving it in tiny portions for the cocktail party, with a pretty dollop of shrimp paste hovering on top of the creamy grits, a refined presentation of the Low Country specialty that Lewis had learned while cooking at Middleton Place outside of Charleston.

Over the years as they cooked together, however, the recipe evolved. They realized that the shrimp paste and grits, when stirred together completely (yes, more than we stirred in the photos) and left to rest for a few minutes, became something even more beguiling.

"Just give them a moment to get to know each other," Peacock explained to me over the phone. "You don't want them to be strangers." On his menus at first Horseradish Grill in Atlanta and later Watershed in Decatur, Peacock called them just "Shrimp Grits". The "and" is gone, and so is any sense of distance between the two fateful ingredients.

grits  grits

At Watershed, they served it as a starter with a long plank of buttered Pullman toast. Peacock loved that people began their meal by literally breaking bread and spooning up shrimp grits. The servers were trained to warn customers that the dish might not be what they were expecting. Rarely, a customer would reject the dish for philosophical reasons, and they'd dutifully take it back and feed it to someone in the kitchen.

But Peacock asserts, despite its controversial form, "It was the absolute, number one biggest selling thing on that menu, period," and stayed on the menu after he left the restaurant in 2010 to work on The Alabama Project, a documentary on food as a vessel for memory for the elderly residents of Alabama (50 interviews down, 50 to go -- learn more in this Splendid Table segment). 

shrimp   shrimp paste

You might wonder why you'd want to take precious little shrimp and clobber them in a food processor, turning them into an unidentifiable pink paste. But they're swirled with the buttery drippings from the pan, which have been deglazed with lemon, sherry, and cayenne, then whipped up with more butter still.

It makes a lovely spread for crackers and all-purpose flavor enhancer (just imagine folding it into risotto, saucing fish, or filling tea sandwiches with it). It's really good.

shrimp paste

But most importantly, stirred through the creamy grits, the shrimp paste goes further than a few handsome prawns piled on top ever could, pervading every spoonful with the pure essence of shrimp at its best and most seductive.

The shrimp paste may have come from Miss Lewis (as Peacock still calls her), but the Shrimp Grits are theirs -- a product of their not-so-odd, but oddly perfect friendship.

shrimp grits

Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock's Shrimp Grits

Adapted very slightly from The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003)

Serves 6

For the shrimp paste:

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined (Scott Peacock likes small, sweet ones like gulf shrimp, but get whatever is freshest)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sherry
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper


For the grits:

2 cups water
2 cups milk, or more
1 cup stone-ground or regular grits
Kosher salt
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom


Tags: genius, Edna Lewis, Scott Peacock, grits, shrimp, Southern food, comfort food, seafood

Comments (21)

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2 months ago Puppylove

I from Georgia and have never, ever heard of grits as "sweet breakfast food". The grits of my experience were salty, buttery, with a good amount of pepper.

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almost 2 years ago Bill Crane

This happens to be one of my favorite cookbooks, and I've cooked about 60% of it. With any cookbook, I'm always intrigues to see what recipe the author put forth as the first one. In this case the very first recipe in the book is "Shrimp Paste", a name that might be off-putting to some. Just get paste the name and the shrimp paste is amazing -- rich and buttery with a slight tang from the sherry and the cayenne. The grits are a separate recipe entirely, located in a different chapter about halfway through the book. And fortunately the introduction to each recipe mentions how well these two go together, and the result is dynamite.

If anyone is persuaded to purchase this book after tasting the recipe given here, I can also whole heartedly recommend Thyme Smothered Chicken, the very simple Fried Green Corn, Collards in a Spicy Tomato Sauce, Fried Chicken with Tomato Gravy (the chicken gets both a soak in brine and buttermilk), Cream of Rutabaga soup, and the dried Fig Relish.

Thanks to the Kristen for sharing this recipe and introducing more folks to this marvelous book.

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almost 2 years ago LLStone

Another winner! And I love the Genius Recipes and look forward to reading it every week. Next up - tortilla soup!

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almost 2 years ago mattyeats

Made this recipe as a side dish with pork chops and sauteed kale. Amazing concept - the sweet flavor of the shrimp really takes each spoonful of grits to a new level. Thank you for sharing!

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almost 2 years ago The Diner of Cville

I was honored and thrilled to work for Chef Peacock last week as a volunteer. As part of a cooking demonstration at Monticello, we baked biscuits in Jefferson's kitchen along with Alice Waters (only the 3rd time the fire had ever been lit!). It was surreal, and although the day was long and hectic, Chef Peacock was a complete gentleman. I'm overwhelmed to have met him as he and Miss Lewis are two of my greatest cooking idols. I still think I may have dreamt the entire thing........and yes, we used Anson Mills grits. Cannot WAIT to make this recipe.....

Jampro

almost 2 years ago Bevi

The best shrimp and grits I ever ate was at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill. But this recipe looks intriguing !

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almost 2 years ago atltohou

Thank you for featuring Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis -- they are some of the world's top chefs tucked away in the delicious and oft-overlooked foodscape of Atlanta. Sine their opening, Watershed has been a constant supporter of all things fresh and beautiful as one of the pillars of Atlanta's slow food movement. I moved to Atlanta at the impressionable age of 18 and Scott is one of the many chefs that transformed my view of food in general. Regardless of whether or not you agree with shrimp paste, he is a chef of amazing talents and his pairing with Edna Lewis should go down in the record books as the 8th wonder of the world.

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almost 2 years ago Trillinchick

Radishes and butter? Really? I remember my parents having tiny separate salt dishes (with legs, no less!) , filled with salt, beside each person's lunch/dinner plate specifically for rolling individual radishes in with the meal. Later they appeared sliced is salads, which I assiduously avoided ( but I digress). Eventually at least my mother's tastes changed, and radishes disappeared from counter and table. So, radishes (raw or cooked?) and butter? Hm-m-m!

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almost 2 years ago Sarag

All weekend, while pondering what American dishes to serve our Fench exchange students, my mind kept returning to shrimp and grits. I remembered a recipe I had meant to try from an old Gourmet but when I finally looked it up it did not make my heat sing. This shrimp paste version does. And I am decided! Shrimp grits it is. Followed by a coconut cake I think. Mush, much later will be the "buoyant root beer" they requested. Yes, that would be root beer floats.

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almost 2 years ago btglenn

Check out Billl Neal's well-known recipe for "Shrimp with Cheese Grits" in one of his cookbooks. It uses whole shrimp and combines the grits with cheese.
Bernice Glenn

Mcs

almost 2 years ago mcs3000

I absolutely adore Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Have not made shrimp + grits even though I order them anytime I see them on a menu (Locanda Verde makes a great one). Must try this recipe.

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almost 2 years ago tsp

Thanks for featuring Edna Lewis and a southern classic. Grits are not served sweet typically in the South-- most always with butter and savory additions. I love her menus in A Taste of Country Cooking-- they really stand out as seasonal and cultural food narratives, not just recipes. She is a national treasure.

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almost 2 years ago ChefCitron

L-O-V-E the Genius Recipes feature!!! It's, well, genius!!! Please keep them coming!

If you're able, do know whats brand of grits you used? They (and the recipe look amazing)!

Miglore

almost 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

Thanks ChefCitron! We used Charleston Favorites stone-ground grits (available at Dean & Deluca here in New York) but Anson Mills makes excellent grits too: http://www.ansonmills.com...

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almost 2 years ago LE BEC FIN

kristen, congratulations on an excellent feature. Funny, but it seems that Shrimp and Grits is becoming the new Sliders of a few years ago>>it seems to be popping up on so many menus around Boston these days!

That said, i will not be making this recipe. I could see making it as a delicious bed for a piece of fish or maybe a softshell crab, but otherwise, it does not appeal to me as an entree. I can afford to make shrimp and grits with whole shrimp, and , more importantly, the distinctly separate but complementary elements of the shrimp, the grits, and the sauce- are critical to what I like in my food- variety in texture, flavor, eye appeal.

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about 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

When I first heard of shrimp and grits - i shuddered, as far as I was concerned grits were purely 'sweet' breakfast foods. And then I read Momofuku and I got intrigued! But still stood at a distance. Now I am enthralled and looking for a way to wrangle a taste. And your writing is a balm, Kristen. A fine balm

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11 months ago frog

Grits a "sweet breakfast food"? I have never had sweet grits for breakfast--it sounds disgusting. One could make a dessert with grits similar to a corn or rice pudding. But grits are normally savory; polenta is made from grits, afterall.

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about 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

When I first heard of shrimp and grits - i shuddered, as far as I was concerned grits were purely 'sweet' breakfast foods. And then I read Momofuku and I got intrigued! But still stood at a distance. Now I am enthralled and looking for a way to wrangle a taste. And your writing is a balm, Kristen. A fine balm

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about 2 years ago Katie

I loved reading this segment and look forward to making this as soon as I can get ahold of some fresh shrimp. The recipe sounds genius, indeed.

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about 2 years ago Midge

Wow. And I thought I'd tried a lot of shrimp and grits variations. I'll be making this as soon as shrimp season starts.

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about 2 years ago ChompingTheBigApple

I don't know that I ever would have thought of this but it makes perfect sense. And I feel like I want that shrimp paste in my fridge at all times as it sounds so tasty.