Feel-Good Friday: Comfort Food

My husband and I grew up with different food traditions, and we came into adulthood craving different comfort foods. Mine: bagels, deep-dish pizza, homemade donuts (apparently round foods have some significance I should probably explore?). His: chicken ‘n’ dumplins (yes, I spelled that correctly), Stouffer’s lasagna, Mayfield ice cream.

We are in our 25th year of marriage and I had an epiphany last week. I asked what he’d like for dinner on Father’s Day (secretly hoping he’d say “Let’s order out”–you’d think after 25 years he’d know the right answer to that question). But he requested shrimp and grits.

Neither one of us grew up on shrimp and grits. In fact only one of us grew up on grits at all. Spoiler for you non-grit-eaters: in the upper South (the northern South??) grits are a breakfast cereal, like oatmeal, eaten with butter and sugar. This is how I learned to eat grits at college in Birmingham, Alabama. But in the coastal South (the southern South?) grits are a savory food. Living on the southern coast of South Carolina a few years ago, we learned to eat grits at any meal, with or without cheese melted in, with or without local-shrimp gravy on top.

The new comforts.

To be fair, we did order out on Saturday night before Father’s Day: Tex-Mex from a nearby restaurant, and we all raved over tamales and street tacos and chips galore. It reminded us of our one-time hometown of San Antonio.

And on Sunday, I made shrimp and grits. I pulled out multiple cookbooks to find a recipe I had all the ingredients for. And then I remembered that shrimp and grits is the kind of dish you make with whatever you have on had. There’s no one right way. There’s the way you learned from your mother, who learned from her mother, and the way you all tinkered and tweaked to suit the moment… if you were lucky enough to have shrimp and grits in your family-recipe tree.

I don’t have a mother’s recipe or a mother-in-law’s recipe as a starting point, so my cookbooks helped, and my memory of South Carolina helped. I raided the produce drawer and the pantry and found enough of the ingredients my various cookbook authors called for. And I stood stirring the bubbling concoction. And I realized, for the first time in our 25 years: we have our own comfort foods now.

This is what moving has done to us–for us. Every place we live, we pick up new recipes as if they are Easter eggs. Breakfast tacos. A Lowcountry Boil. I was surprised at how delighted I was, how good it felt, to notice this very concrete way that our life together is changing us, deep in the places where we seek comfort. We seek comfort, and we think of tamales, or shrimp and grits.

A recipe, but not The Recipe.

This is the way I made Father’s Day shrimp and grits. This time. Next time it will likely be different. Consider this a starting point, and have fun playing to make it your own, this time.

For the grits: Use good grits, stoneground; I like yellow, just because. I used Wade’s Mill brand. Cook according to package directions, adding water as needed if it dries out too quickly. A cooking class teacher in Charleston said the grits should smell like popcorn when they’re done; at that point, throw in 2-3 tablespoons (or more, no judgment) of butter, and 1/2 cup (or more, ditto) of heavy cream and keep cooking until it’s thick and creamy. Shortly before you’re ready to serve, stir in a cup (you know the drill) of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Save some to sprinkle on top, if you’re a cheese person like me.

For the shrimp “gravy”: This can be as gravyish or as full of veggies as you like. I sautéed green pepper, onion, and garlic in oil until soft, and added corn cut off the cob… then tossed in the cob to boost the corny flavor. Add a can or two of diced tomatoes, depending how saucy you like it. Stir in as much Old Bay seasoning as you like, then enough chicken or veggie broth, water, or wine to keep it liquidy.

At this point, raid the fridge. You could add any kind of veggies; I love it with okra but my family would pick them all out. But zucchini or yellow squash would work too. You might also give it a kick with sausage; one of our favorite places in South Carolina adds andouille.

Let it sit and simmer until the grits are ready, then add the shrimp to the gravy and cook until they turn from gray to pink. We peel them before cooking for ease of eating, but you wouldn’t have to. In fact, if you plan far enough ahead (I didn’t), you can use the shrimp shells to make stock to use in place of water.

To serve, just ladle the cheesy grits into a bowl and top with the shrimp gravy. Serve with cornbread or a crusty wheaty loaf.

Bonus grit idea.

My second favorite thing to do with grits is a brunch Grit Bar.

One of our regular haunts in South Carolina (Lowcountry Produce) did this one year at their Mother’s Day buffet and it was awesome. Make the grits cheese-less to begin with, and serve with whatever toppings inspire you: cheese (duh), crumbled bacon, chopped tomato, herbs, roasted garlic, more cheese, diced pimento. Maybe chopped barbeque? Even jalapeño? You can’t go wrong.

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