‘The truth is in the making of the grits,” Mark Lee says about the Lowcountry’s most famous dish, shrimp and grits. So true. Because without good grits, the dish is only half as good as it should be.
Lee was the chef at Sullivan’s on Sullivan’s Island more than 20 years ago when he developed the restaurant’s signature recipe for shrimp and grits (in this case, it’s a grits cake). Heather Pridgen of Mount Pleasant recently asked for the recipe, and Lee got in touch.
Lee, who worked at Sullivan’s between 1989 and 1999, has joined the family lumber business since then. But he still has a hand in cooking, which is his first love.
He’s in the kitchen at SeeWee restaurant in Awendaw on Friday and Saturday nights. There, he does a different version of shrimp and grits “because I think that the fried grit cake recipe belongs at Sullivan’s where it is best known,” Lee wrote in an email.
The secret to good grits, according to Lee, is putting your salt, butter and cream into the water before you add the grits. “Grits are a food that absorbs, so if you have everything in the water, then you have an even flavor. ... If the grits didn’t have salt in the water first then you could pour a whole shaker of salt on your grits and they would still be bland.”
Lee continues, “The second thing people need to know that even if the bag says quick grits, the grits still need to cook. I usually cook mine up to a half hour before they are ready to serve. Third, when you make grits to make your grit cakes, you need to make them a little thicker than what the package directions say. So they will set up and make a firm grit cake.”
Lee’s recipe calls quick grits, not to be confused with instant. They are widely available in grocery stores.
For me, however, it’s worth the extra money and longer cooking time to use stone-ground grits. The true corn flavor comes out and makes a huge difference. They are still a specialty product although becoming easier to find in supermarkets.
Serves 4 For the grits: 6 cups water
2 cups of cream 1 stick butter
1 tablespoon salt 2 cups quick grits
Flour for dredging Oil for pan frying
For the white pepper shrimp gravy:
1 quart of heavy cream 1/4 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 3 tablespoons of roux (see cook’s note)
1 pound peeled and de-veined shrimp
For the red-eye gravy: 4 large pieces of country ham
1 cup of coffee Directions Cook’s note: Store-bought roux may be available or make your own by melting ½ stick of butter in a pan and whisking in 4 tablespoons of flour. Cook over medium heat until the roux smells nutty and resembles the color of a light peanut butter. (Refrigerate for freeze leftover roux for future use.)
To cook grits: Combine the water and cream in a pot. Add the butter and salt and bring to a medium low boil. Add the grits, and cook 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often. Grits should be thick when cooked (you may need add more grits to the pot in the beginning).
Pour and spread the grits about 1 inch deep into a casserole dish. Use an 8x8-inch or 9x9-inch dish for thicker cakes, or a 9x13-inch for thinner ones. Chill, uncovered. This step is best done a day ahead of time.
To make the gravy: Heat the heavy cream and chicken stock to a low boil. Add the black pepper, onion powder, white pepper and garlic powder. Simmer on a low boil for about 10 minutes. Add the roux a tablespoon at a time until the sauce is a more of a gravy thickness. Add the shrimp and cook just until shrimp turn pink. Set the pan aside immediately.
To fry the grits: Cut the grits into 4x4-inch squares. Dredge squares in flour and pan fry in ¼ inch oil until each side is golden brown and crisp. Tip: Don’t get in a hurry because you only want to flip the grit cakes once so they do not fall apart.
To make the red-eye gravy: Heat a cast-iron pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add the country ham and cook until crisp. Add the coffee and simmer for 1 minute.
To serve: Divide the country ham on four plates and pour the red-eye gravy on top. Top with a grits cake and pour the shrimp gravy over.
Still looking: A James Island reader would like recipes for stuffed green peppers, including any that use a different grain other than rice.
Peggy Vann of Hollywood has carried on her family tradition of baking “Hopping Bunnies” — yeast rolls — for Easter breakfast, as well as delivering them to friends. However, she says, “Some years, the bunny rolls rise better (and have better texture) than others, and I can’t figure out why!”
Peggy has several questions that I thought I would throw out to expert bakers in our midst for advice or suggestions:
Has the amount of yeast in “a package” changed over the years? (She has continued to use Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast, rather than the newer “Rapid Rise” yeast.)
“I have always used margarine, rather than Crisco (as ‘shortening’), as I thought the rolls would taste better; would it make a difference (other than taste) if I used butter instead? Or do you think the rolls would turn out better if I used Butter-Flavored Crisco?”
“Although my mother always used a basic flour (Gold Medal or Red Band), I’ve typically use King Arthur’s unbleached flour for most baking. I began using King Arthur Bread Flour for the Hopping Bunnies four or five years ago, and thought the results were better.”
“Although Mama always mixed in the flour and kneaded the dough by hand, I’m wondering if using the dough hook on my electric mixer would be a good idea. I used my dough hook/mixer when making focaccia recently, and was really pleased with the results.”
If there’s a recipe you’ve lost, have memories of or a dish you are just wondering about, let us know. Email Food Editor Teresa Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 937-4886.