There’s a whole world of flavor packed into the 80 mile stretch of coastal South Carolina and Georgia that runs from the Savannah River in Georgia north to Pawley’s Island.
Lowcountry (notice I use one word), is a picturesque area marked by flat expanses of salt water marsh grass and live oak trees, with their long, arching limbs draped with silvery clumps of Spanish moss. There is a pungent, slightly salty smell that permeates the air of the Lowcountry. Its source is the area’s pluff mud: the dark marsh soil left behind after the tide recedes. That smell—and term—is one of the Lowcountry’s many distinctive qualities. Tidal marshes, rivers, estuaries, and the Atlantic Ocean all play a part in the cuisine this low elevation area is known for, which also goes by the same name.
The Lowcountry teems with aquatic life, and for centuries local cooks have turned to the water for culinary inspiration. Crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters form the basis of any traditional menu, along with rice, grits, and local produce.
You’ll find African, French, Spanish, and Caribbean influences of the Gullah, a group of descendants of former slaves who live on the barrier islands in lowcountry cooking, where the names of the native dishes are almost as colorful as the fresh local ingredients that go into them: she-crab soup, Frogmore stew, and hoppin’ John, for instance.
Before my parents retired to Pawleys Island, I was unfamiliar with the whole lowcountry thing. I can tell you it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the diverse beauty of the area, and it definitely didn’t take me long to embrace the unique flavors that go along with lowcountry cuisine.
Among my favorites has to be the ultimate comfort you’ll find in shrimp and grits. There are a million different ways to make this dish, but I have found that one of the requirements to make cooking it authentic, is the use of bacon drippings, or “drippins” as they are affectionately referred to in the south. I like the grits smooth, and creamy, and since I have a thing for chiles, I like to add a bit of smoke and heat. Chipotle white cheddar cheese goes into my grits, along with a pretty good amount of butter AND the bacon, along with some of the drippins. Not exactly a candidate for Cooking Light magazine, but you know, sometimes a little indulgence is okay. At least I think so anyway.
Shrimp and Grits with Chipotle White Cheddar
3 cups chicken broth
¾ cup quick grits
1 cup (4 ounces ) chipotle white cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¾ pound thick sliced bacon, cut into ¼-inch matchsticks
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound shelled and deveined large shrimp
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Whisk in the grits and cook over moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and the grits are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the cheese and butter, season with salt and pepper and whisk until the cheese is melted. Cover and remove from heat.
In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the bacon and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is golden, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Pour off all but 4 tablespoons of the bacon drippings in the skillet. Add the shrimp and cook 2 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook 1 minute. Stir in the parsley, green onions, and bacon; season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the grits on to each plate and top with shrimp mixture.