At the James Beard Award-winning Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Shrimp & Grits are more than just a classic offering. The restaurant is often cited as the birthplace of the dish, one of the most iconic in Southern cooking. As chef Bill Smith tells it, the Shrimp & Grits came to Crook's Corner and to prominence in America with the late Bill Neal. Neal reimagined this fisherman's breakfast from South Carolina as a dish for the restaurant, which he opened in 1982. By the time Smith arrived some 11 years later, the dish was already a staple on the menu. And while today the restaurant serves a contemporary Southern menu, Smith estimates that 25 to 30 percent of all diners at the restaurant will order the dish on a given night.
At the heart of the dish, Smith says, is its simplicity. Calling the Crook's Corner dish foundational, Smith says: "Most of the time when you go somewhere else, they've added more things. We just have fewer ingredients." Those ingredients are stone ground white grits, two kinds of cheese, bacon, shrimp, mushrooms, Tabasco sauce, scallions, and very little else. "It's really a plain and simple thing that caught fire," he says. "I would never dream of changing it."
Below, the elements of Crook's Corners famous Shrimp & Grits:
1. The Grits
Since Smith's first day at Crook's Corner 21 years ago, the restaurant has been using Adluh stone ground white grits to make their signature dish. Admitting that the decision to use grits made from white corn as opposed to yellow corn has been lost to history, Smith speculates that it might have been to elevate the dish, having heard some older locals refer to yellow corn as "horse corn." Smith slowly adds the grits to salted boiling water, and then makes sure to stir them frequently. "It's kind of like polenta," he explains. "In order for them not to clump up, you need to stir. It's the nature of the starches." Frequent stirring also helps evenly mix the grits through the water to ensure proper cooking. Vigilance is key while cooking grits. "Grits and corn are a weird thing. All of a sudden it's solid, and really thick. It happens in no time." Depending on how far in advance of service the grits are prepared, Smith will either turn the heat down to low or off to prevent overcooking. Because it's such a popular dish, Smith says the restaurant makes grits in "giant amounts."
2. The Cheese
After the grits are cooked through, Smith adds three parts cheddar to one part parmesan. These are, again, the traditional cheeses that have always been used at Crook's Corner, but Smith adds that they each add their own flavors to the dish. While cheddar might be an "obvious" choice, parmesan adds a needed sharpness and saltiness to the dish. Smith shreds the cheese in a food processor before adding them to the grits to facilitate melting.
3. The Bacon
When it comes to the bacon for the shrimp & grits, Smith lets his butcher make the decisions. The eponymous meat purveyor behind the local Cliff's Meat Market selects "standard" bacon for Smith. The key, Smith says, is that the bacon not be very smoky. Because of the volume needed for service, Smith cooks the bacon and renders out the fat earlier in the day. He reserves the crispy bacon bits to use when he prepares the shrimp during service.
4. The Shrimp
Size is of the essence when it comes to the shrimp Smith likes for the dish. He buys "26/30" shrimp, which means there are about 26 to 30 per pound. Smith explains that while he usually buys local North Carolina shrimp, he does occasionally buy Gulf shrimp as a way to offer his support that industry which "had so much trouble." The prep is pretty straightforward: The shrimp are shelled in house "as a rule" and then cleaned. They are lightly dusted with flour that's been seasoned with salt and pepper before being very quickly pan fried in a bit of bacon grease. Using too much grease is one of the mistakes his cooks sometimes make as they learn the recipe.
5. The Assembly
Once it's time for service, the Shrimp & Grits are remarkably fast to assemble. When it's time to start serving, Smith adds what is called a "grit kit" to each serving of grits. The kit is basically pre-measured mixture of the cheddar and parmesan discussed above, plus Tabasco, white pepper, salt, cayenne, and butter. These are the flavoring agents for the grits, and are simply stirred in.
Smith says the shrimp mixture that tops the grits is essentially a stir-fry. The pans should "be very hot, virtually smoking" when the shrimp is added first. It is flipped once and then Smith adds sliced button mushrooms, and is careful to shake the pan frequently. On the subject of mushrooms, Smith emphasizes yet again that the Crook's Corner preparation is really all about simplicity. "To use a fancier type of mushroom would be gilding the lily," he says.
After those cook a bit, Smith adds fresh garlic, and then adds the bacon bits once the garlic becomes fragrant. At this time Smith adds lemon juice, which not only adds acidity and brightness, but also prevents the garlic from browning. Besides, Smith says, "lemon and seafood is a natural combination." Smith then adds three of four shakes of Tabasco before adding scallion, sliced into thin rounds. The aim is for the scallion to stay crisp, while still imparting its bright flavor to the dish. Smith explains that although there are certainly other hot sauces which would work well in the dish, using Tabasco is a step that predates him and one he wouldn't change now.
After the stir-fry is finished, it is spooned atop the plate of grits, garnished with a lemon wedge and parsley, and immediately served.