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True grits

You can find shrimp and grits all over Central Florida. Or you can make it yourself

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My wife and I used to rejoice every time we discovered shrimp and grits on the menu of another restaurant. Like the dish, we both come from South Carolina, and it felt like a personal welcome. But eventually we began to wonder if these offerings weren’t kind of like those fake Southern accents folk singers tend to adopt.

Either way, shrimp and grits is the new, post-fancy-mac-’n’-cheese comfort-food trend everywhere from restaurants humble to haughty. Taste aside, the dish is appealing because it’s simultaneously down-home and exotic. It’s hearty and yet somehow light (shrimp are high in protein and low in fat). It’s more substantial than mac and cheese; it can be devoured as an entrée for breakfast or dinner.

Because the otherwise bland grits are a perfect sop for the flavors of the shrimp and sauce, shrimp and grits gives chefs a lot of room to experiment, and as a result the styles are as varied as the restaurants. But the truth is, this crustacean-and-hominy combo is a simple meal best cooked in your own kitchen.

Restaurants like to use heavy cream, but for my money it overwhelms the grits and makes the dish too rich. When it comes to grits, you want them (OK, I want them) to be more Waffle House than “creamy polenta.” You can use a little milk, but water and a pinch of salt work best.

Coarser stone-ground grits are preferable, but they’re hard to find around here and much more expensive. Regular old grits are fine. Quaker’s grits will be your best bet; they run about $2.50 a pound. Whatever you do, don’t use instant. The hominy is too finely ground and processed and will never reach the right consistency.

Specific directions can usually be found on the package – some variation of pouring the grits into boiling water, turning it down to a simmer and covering the pot. Stir them often so they don’t get gloppy. That’s the worst thing that can happen to your grits. If they’re too runny, just keep cooking, and if they get too thick, add a little more water. If they’re too gloppy, you might as well start over.

You should let them cook for at least 20 minutes, but they can simmer much longer if your shrimp aren’t ready or your date is late. Finally, if you want, you can throw in some shredded cheddar cheese about two minutes before you take the grits off the stove.

As for the shrimp, the smaller the better. Fresh-frozen Florida shrimp are easily procured from Wild Ocean (they freeze their catch right on the boat) at the Monday-night Audubon Park Market at Stardust Video & Coffee (1842 E. Winter Park Road). Lombardi’s Seafood (1152 Harmon Ave., Winter Park) is another good source of local shrimp, but use whatever works for you. In the Lowcountry, this dish is traditionally made with small river or creek shrimp. Large shrimp have a coarser, chewier texture that doesn’t go with grits – and especially not grits with heavy cream.

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