Most locals keep a secret stash of sweet, late-summer shrimp in their freezers for a mid-winter supper. If you have eaten yours already, you can also find frozen North Carolina shrimp at most of the local seafood shops. Substitute U.S., wild-caught, shrimp but not internationally farm raised! Who fishes matters, and if you cannot get the good stuff, get something else. You can also prepare this dish with scallops or bite-sized pieces of fresh, local fish. Add quick-cooked local collards for a complete meal.
When using country ham, if space and budget allow, always choose a whole ham over preservative-soaked pieces. You can thinly slice and freeze the ham and use it in a variety of recipes as well as in ham salad sandwiches. Use the bones to make soup broth and as a flavorful base for a pot of beans. I have included a recipe for sweet potato biscuits, too, just because they are just so right with country ham. These freeze nicely, too.
When it comes to grits, don’t even think about the bland, runny grocery store variety.
You want real, stone-ground, corn grits. Forget the cereal aisle, and look in the organic section or in specialty food shops for grits that are clearly marked as stone-ground, heirloom or old-fashioned, milled grits.
Shrimp and Grits with Red-Eye Gravy
¼ pound country ham, cut into half-inch pieces
2 pounds peeled and deveined local shrimp
¼ stick + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
¼ cup heavy cream
2 cups fresh, strong coffee
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
In a large cast-iron skillet, cook the country ham for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-high heat. You will not need to add anything to the pan before you add the ham if you have a well-seasoned pan. Some of the ham will stick to the bottom of the pan. These yummy bits of fond will be the base of your gravy. Next, add your shrimp. Move them around in the pan as they cook. The water content of the shrimp will prevent them from sticking to the pan. The shrimp will start to brown and caramelize, and the flavors of the shrimp and ham will have a chance to marry before the rest of the ingredients arrive.
When the shrimp are almost cooked, remove the duo from the pan. Return the pan to the stovetop, add 2 teaspoons of butter and melt on medium heat. Sprinkle in your flour and immediately whisk the butter and flour and watch it closely. You will want to stir often and cook just until the raw taste of flour becomes nutty and sweet. At that point add your coffee and continue to whisk. Keep whisking and you may not have a lumpy gravy. While still moving the sauce around in the pan, add the heavy cream. If your heat is too high, you may absorb the liquid too fast. If that happens, you can always add more coffee, so make sure you have a bit extra on hand.
At this point you can add sea salt and pepper to taste and the rest of the butter. Remove from heat when you add the butter and stir continuously until butter is incorporated and you have a smooth, elegant sauce.
If you have a few lumps and they are not bits of country ham you may want to strain the gravy. All you need to do is pass the gravy through a fine strainer over a bowl then return the gravy to a clean saucepan.
Add the shrimp and ham to the pan gravy and warm until the shrimp finish cooking. Try not to overcook the shrimp. They like to curl into themselves loosely to let you know they are ready. Serve immediately over stone-ground grits.
3 cups water
1 cup milk
1 cup stone ground grits – NOT instant grits
Sea salt and pepper
Place water and milk in a heavy saucepan with a dash of sea salt and heat to simmer. Stir in grits and stir some more. Grits will start to thicken and large bubbles will rise to the surface. When this happens, cover and reduce the heat to very low and continue to simmer for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and do not touch for 20 minutes. The grits will be very tender. At this point you could add a bit of cheese, a bunch of butter or just a touch more sea salt and cracked pepper to preference.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
This is a recipe from my Nana’s favorite baking cookbook from the 1960s. She was born in Kentucky and appreciated the art of Southern cooking even while living in Michigan. This recipe is still good today and is perfect with salty slivers of country ham.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
Cut in with pastry cutter or your fingers until crumbly:
¼ cup shortening
¼ cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
½ cup milk
Using a gentle hand, lightly bring all ingredients together and turn onto floured work surface. Knead lightly for only few turns and roll out dough to at least ½ inch thickness. Cut biscuits with 2” round cutter. Flour the bottom of the cutter for easier extraction of biscuit dough. Place biscuits closely together on a greased baking sheet, you want them to touch, and bake at 425 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes.