I searched the pantry last night for inspiration. I knew what I wanted to make for dinner and hoped I had the supplies to back it up.
Close, but not quite. I wanted shrimp and grits. Was that asking too much? Who doesn't have a bag of grits tucked away with all the other grains? Me, apparently. I had everything else. I rifled through our packed kitchen cabinets in search of something (anything) to stand in for the grits. Moved, slid, shoved, rearranged. Cabinet Jenga. Rice? Maybe. Egg noodles? Eh. Buttered new potatoes? No. West African Attieke cassava couscous? What? Don't think so. Squished in the farthest back corner of the grain cupboard was a huge yellow bag of Rolland medium grain polenta. Polenta? Bingo!
The polenta discovery sent my head spinning. I decided to make traditional shrimp & grits bumped up with an italian influence. I added things.
Mise en place was definitely in order. After the polenta was gingerly coaxed into a creamy cheesy state, the rest of the meal went fast. Really fast. A one skillet wonder.
I thinly sliced one green bell pepper, a vidallia oinion, and a large clove of garlic. I plucked 4 very ripe grape tomatoes off the vine and halved them. After slicing scallions on an extreme diagonal, I traded out cutting boards to cut the meat. At that point, I knew it was not going to be typical shrimp & grits. I sliced an italian sausage on the bias, cut 8 strips of slab bacon into lardons, peeled and deviened 10 large shrimp, and set everything aside while I enjoyed a few glasses of wine with Michael.
Using a quick, not instant, cooking polenta, I brought 2 cups of chicken stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, added 1 teaspoon of salt, and gently added the polenta. I stirred the molten cauldron of polenta clockwise (traditional method) constantly to alleviate the plopping popping volcanic bubbles that explode when polenta is left unattended. Trust me on that. After 20 minutes, it was creamy and soft.
I added 1/2 cup of heavy cream, 2 chunks of butter, a handful of fresh chopped parsley, and a cup of nutty grated parmesan reggiano. I gave it a quick stir to incorporate and set it aside on a low burner. A very low burner.
While the polenta warmed, I got a heavy cast iron skillet screaming hot before adding the bacon to cook and crisp up. Once it was snappingly crisp, I removed the bacon to drain and tossed in the green peppers and onions to saute in the salty bacon fat.
After they softened, I added the garlic and the sliced sausage. Once the sausage caramelized with curled up edges, I tossed in the shrimp and grape tomatoes. The house smelled amazing. I let the shrimp cook briefly until bright pink before adding fresh lemon juice and chicken stock to reduce for a sauce. A few shakes of Old Bay, salt, pepper, and fresh parsley finished it off.
I ladled the herbed polenta into pasta bowls and topped it with the shrimp, sausage, peppers, onions, and tomatoes. After pouring the pan jus over and around the polenta, I showered everything with sliced scallions and the reserved crisp fried bacon.
Let me just say, I love traditional shrimp and grits. This was entirely something else. It retained the gritty charm of the original southern classic, but had tons of additional flavors and textures. The spiced sausage provided hefty bite and substance to contrast the silken briny shrimp. The soft biting collapsed tomatoes released their sweet acidity into the sauce while the lemon juice cut through it with clean brightness. Bite after bite, the combination of of shrimp, sausage, and sauteed vegetables completely complimented each other. All of that salty, sweet, and acidic flavor....on top of oozing cheesy decedant herbed peasant polenta.
It was ridiculous. Utterly insane. The most important ingredient? Bacon fat. Yep. Although I used an italian influence for our shrimp and______, not one drop of olive oil hit the skillet. Bacon fat, with its salty goodness, made it southern comfort food.
So, it wasn't exactly shrimp and grits, but it was close and outrageously tasty.