Monthly Archives: July 2015

Shrimp and Grits: A History

Shrimp and Grits is a classic summer dish in the south. Chock full of flavor and spice, it is hard to go wrong with this combination, but it was not well known until the 1980’s. Shrimp and grits was originally from the Southern low-country, specifically coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where it was called “Shrimps and Hominy”. Some Charlestonians would eat it every morning for breakfast during the shrimp season, June-October. There is record of a similar dish from the Gullah (or Geechee) community in the low country. Outside of these areas, however, there was little mention of this decadent dish. That is until Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill came along. Neal was dedicated to discovering and sharing regional dishes of the South such as etouffees and muddle, or fish soup from the NC coast. Shrimp and grits was the dish to transform Crook’s Corner into what it is today—a fine dining destination—and it is still the most popular dish the restaurant offers. Now, because of Neal, Shrimp and Grits has become a very important dish to serve in Southern-style restaurants. Each chef has a specific way that they like to make it and the competition is high. “It’s been a remarkable journey for a once-obscure breakfast dish that’s now an icon of Southern fine dining.”

shrimp and grits

We are right in the middle of peak shrimp season in North Carolina and Papa Spud’s source for local seafood is Haag and Son’s in Oak Island, NC. John Haag has been in the fish business for over 30 years, so I decided to call him up to learn some shrimp facts. The shrimp that you will get in NC now is brown shrimp from the Pamlico Sound. Every year shrimp follFresh shrimpow the same migration patterns from the rivers to the sound to the ocean. When the shrimp are the in the sound they grow very quickly due to the warm water temperatures and abundance of food. Brown shrimp are highly prolific, each female lays 500,000- 1 million eggs and they all live only about 14 months. On July 4 the shrimp were around 40/50 and now they will be about 21/25—which means that there are 21-25 shrimp per pound (so they’re huge). Right now each boat that goes out to the sound has been pulling about 10,000 pounds of shrimp a week. The brown shrimp season will begin to wind down by the end of August and the White Shrimp will take their place. Now is the perfect time to enjoy some North Carolina caught shrimp in any way you can.

Carolina Grits & Company is located in Rocky Mount, NC. They sell Yellow Country, White Country, and Geechee Grits, all stone cut and whole grain. When grits are stone cut as opposed to stone ground, there is less heat produced while they are being milled which “preserves the flavor and allows them to cook to a larger size.” Whole grain means that no germ or bran is removed during the process. Carolina Grits & Company is the only known grits producer that mills their grits in this specific way. The owner, Ron West, learned everything he knows in South Carolina, where grits are the official state food, and has been in the business since 2005. The stones for their stone mill are pink granite and specially dressed, only found in quarries in Western NC, so every step of this process is as local as you can get. Inside a mill there are two millstones, the one on the bottom, the bedstone, is stationary and the one on the top, the runnerstone, actually turns and mills the grain. Both stones have grooves and furrows etched into them so that when they turn against each other the patterns create a scissor and cut the grain. Back when Grist Mills (often mistakenly called ‘grits mills’) were common, each miller had his own pattern on their stones and would show the pattern as their trademark or logo. There was once a sense of pride that went along with being a miller, and West is bringing that back with each bag of grits he sells.

millstoe2Old Millstone

 

 

 

 

The only difference between yellow and white grits is the color of the corn that is milled. The country grits are delicious, traditional grits that take about 45 minutes to cook. You’ll find some serious disagreements about how to best flavor grits, but my preference is adding butter, salt, pepper (sometimes a little cayenne for an extra kick), and cheese. Geechee grits, on the other hand, are larger and have a much longer cooking time, often cooked in a slow cooker overnight. They are a specialty that originates from the sea islands from North Florida up to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The Gullah, or Geechee, community descends from West African slaves brought over specifically for their knowledge of rice cultivation. Because of their specialized skills they were left largely to their own devices when they weren’t working which allowed them to continue their cultural way of life. The Gullah are the most authentic African culture that exists in America, today. They speak their own language, a creole of English and many different African languages. For more information about this important community watch this fascinating video about the Gullah Culture

The Geechee Grits produced by Carolina Grits & Company have become a chef favorite around North Carolina and are absolutely worth the wait for their long cooking time.

Shrimp & Grits:
Fresh, wild-caught shrimp from our NC coast. Stone-ground grits from Carolina Grits. It’s easy when the ingredients are this good! Satisfying southern dish that you’ll want to make over and over again!

Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 30 mins
Serves 2

Ingredients:
• 1/2 cup stone-ground grits
• 1 cup water
• 1 cup whole milk
• salt
• 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
• 2 strips of bacon
• 8 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 2 ounces white mushroom, coarsely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1/4 cup chicken broth
• 1/4 tsp. hot sauce
• 1 green onion, sliced

1. In a medium saucepan, bring water and milk to a boil over high heat. Turn heat to low and whisk in grits. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until grits are creamy. Stir in parmesan cheese, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir in additional hot water if grits get to thick. Add additional salt to taste.

2. While the grits cook, cook bacon in a skillet over medium high heat until crispy. Transfer bacon to paper towels, but keep bacon fat in the pan.

3. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Add shrimp to the skillet with the bacon fat, and cook over medium heat, flipping them once, until they are bright pink, about 2 minutes. Remove shrimp from the skillet, and set aside.

4. Add mushrooms to the skillet and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional minute.

5. Increase heat on your skillet to medium-high, and add the chicken broth. As the broth sizzles, scrape the surface of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook broth until it reduces by about half, about 3-4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, add shrimp, and a dash of hot sauce. Stir shrimp in the sauce.

6. Serve grits in a bowl, topped with a few shrimp. Crumble the bacon over top, and garnish with sliced green onions. Enjoy!

Our American Food Culture Revisited

When you think of American food culture what comes to mind? Burgers and fries, mac ‘n cheese, quick, easy, and cheap—that is until it is time to go on a diet when you cut everything “bad” out for a short period of time until you are suddenly allowed to eat it again. The American relationship to food is puzzling at best, most likely because there is very little emphasis on the actual food and more emphasis on how (quickly, easily, cheaply) it gets into our stomachs.

two cheeseburgers with  fries

Our relationship with food has shifted immensely over the past century from smaller scale farms to industrial agriculture. Interestingly enough the shift came after World War II when the factories that were used to make nitrogen for bombs no longer became necessary, and they shifted over to making nitrogen-rich ammonia as fertilizer for farms. The use of fertilizer became much more widespread largely because the supply was there. Simultaneously incentives for growing a monoculture such as corn or soybeans were increasing so farmers were no longer rotating crops or fields. Once the monoculture became regular practice, nitrogen had to be added into the soil to support these notoriously “needy” crops (both corn and soybeans pull nitrogen from the soil). So this has culminated into a culture of industrial agriculture—pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, huge machinery—all to grow a massive amount of cash crops that have to be processed to be edible. And so the process continues because it is the cycle we have gotten ourselves into and we have come to expect and even like the kind of food that this system produces. We look to big corporations to grow, process, make, and deliver our food to as close to our houses as possible and the result is slightly terrifying. There are children in cities who don’t know what a carrot actually is, don’t know that fries come from potatoes which grow in the ground, and have no idea that the burger they are eating is actually from an animal. Before industrial agriculture really took hold there was a culture of plant and food knowledge that was passed down through families and among friends. Most people knew how to identify between a tomato plant and a weed because someone they knew had a garden and found it important to pass this knowledge along. This is slowly coming back, people are beginning to realize that far too often they have no idea what they are putting into their bodies or how to grow a garden.

We are lucky to be part of a current cultural shift where good food is once again taking precedence, where the face of the farmer is important, and where we know that food takes time and good company. Grist Magazine did a series called Farm Size Matters in which they have several articles explaining the agricultural system we have in place and the mid-sized farmers that “are too busy to sell at the farmers market and too small to compete” with the large-scale farms that dominate the food system. More and more people are becoming aware and publications are beginning to give time to delve into the maze of the food system in which we live. Urban farms are cropping up, food artisans are appearing, food and environmental education are beginning to be emphasized, and people are slowly beginning to learn how to truly interact with their food. We have the exciting responsibility to create a vibrant and interactive food culture for ourselves and for our children.

farmers market

It is times like these when it is important to collect and share stories of others around the country that are living the countercultural lifestyle immersed in food. The Bitter Southerner is a fantastic blog featuring beautiful stories from the South. A recent video and article was posted on their website about an urban forager/CSA farmer/author named Tiffany Noé. Noé lives in Little Haiti in Miami and has created a lifestyle revolving around growing food and foraging for food around her neighborhood. In Miami there are tropical fruit trees growing in public spaces that are free for anyone who is willing to harvest. She argues that this is the best way to get to know where you live—walk the streets and look for the food among the weeds and the trees. She advocates a knowledge of place and food that connects us to our home in a way that has been lost and connects us to our neighbors simply by meeting and talking to them as we explore. Raleigh has a similar group called Piedmont Picnic Project, that emphasizes local food history and wild edibles and connect us all to the Piedmont in a beautifully delicious way.

Similarly, there are food staples (especially in the south) that have been ultra-processed for a for a while and are being reclaimed. Grits, for example, have a bad reputation because of their widely used and impressively tasteless imposters—instant grits. In the wonderful words of the first witness in the movie My Cousin Vinny: “No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.” It hasn’t been until recently that people have begun to seriously seek out different corn varieties and mill grits in a traditional way. In another beautiful Bitter Southerner post, the world of freshly milled grits is revealed. We have a great source of local grits in North Carolina from Carolina Grits & Company. These are high quality, freshly ground, dent grits (which refers to the the type of corn best for making grits), that are packed with flavor. They take longer to cook but they are well worth the wait–especially during shrimp season!

Slowly, alongside those who have already begun to pave the way, we can create a vibrant, local food culture. It will involve telling stories, sharing recipes, eating communal meals, going on walks, reading books, and cooking a lot. This unique time calls for our creativity, collaboration, and a sense of adventurousness. We can find the roots of our food and make it our own once again.

The Dog Days of Summer

Needless to say, the weather this year has been crazy— the long winter that swept 20-degree weather through Easter weekend, to the 100-degree weather that descended upon North Carolina a few weeks ago. We have entered into the dog days of summer, technically from July 3- August 11, which refers to the hottest and muggiest days of the season. The reason for this title is because at this point of the year the sun is in the same region of the sky as Sirius, the brightest star visible from Earth. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. The ancient Romans believed that Sirius actually gave off heat, and when it was in the same region as the sun they thought it contributed to the heat on earth—thus, we have the dog days of summer. So here we are, covered in humidity with very abnormal weather patterns, still in a drought in parts of the state, and yet farmers must keep farming.

 

dog days

I called Bill Walker of Walker Farms to hear how they have been dealing with the recent weather. Walker Farms is located in Randolph County, just south of High Point, or “red clay country”. When I asked about the recent wave of heat, Walker responded by saying that this heat hasn’t hurt his farm nearly as much as the long winter did. The dry heat can be dealt with through drip and overhead irrigation. It is definitely better than too much rain, as the old saying goes, “you can make it rain but you can’t stop it.” Farming in clay soil is beneficial during hot spells because clay stays relatively cool, especially compared to the sandy soil down east. The heat did hurt Walker’s first squash planting and then the rain came and “scared the next planting to death…but we’re surviving;” he didn’t seem too phased by the weather, they’re just working with it and rolling with the punches. It seems that odd weather patterns come as no surprise to Walker anymore.

The long winter and basically non-existent spring is really what messed with their crops this season. The cold season crops such as cauliflower had a hard time producing because the cold stayed for so long and damaged the fruit and the general growth. Certain plants like colder temperatures but they are usually planted in the cold and then they grow as the season gets slightly warmer; that didn’t happen this year. The winter settled in for the long haul, gave the spring crops a hard time, and caused a slow start for all the summer crops. It affected the pollination of the peppers so they came on really slowly this year. Up until very recently the peppers were producing very little, but after the recent evening storms they’ve finally caught up with themselves and begun to produce. Walker pointed out, however, that it might have been a good thing the peppers produced so slowly because when the heat hit they all would have gotten burned. The Globe Eggplant came earlier than the smaller eggplants this year, when it is usually the opposite— the plants have definitely noticed a change in the weather.

wild grass in the nature.

According to Walker it seems that recently every year has had some extreme weather. Perhaps extremes are becoming the norm, but farmers have to continuously learn and adapt with the seasons. This is exactly why it is important to invest in local agriculture: because these smaller-scale farmers have the ability to adapt and to change. Large monoculture crops will get hit with a disease and wiped out in one fell swoop, but smaller-scale farmers can plant different varieties and pay closer attention to how their crops are doing. The answer is not to create a roundup resistant strain of corn in the lab so we can spray more herbicides and not have to weed, the answer is to work with the land as we know it to be and plant accordingly. Farmers, like Bill Walker, that really know what they are doing are the ones that are going to change the food system for the better and it is our responsibility to support those farmers. The interesting thing is that if you want there to be more sustainable food, you have to eat it. So eat on all you foodies and environmentalists, you are doing more good than you realize.

Eggplant and Heirloom Tomato Galore!

Multiple varieties of heirloom tomatoes and eggplants are finally in season. Their crazy colors and shapes can now grace your counter with their Dr. Seuss-like presence. They are calling for a culinary experiment with each touting its own flavor profile and subtle texture difference. Prepare your palates for the great vegetable diversity that is suddenly available.

heirlooms

There’s a lot of talk about heirloom tomatoes and how delicious they are, but what exactly is an heirloom tomato? Is the excitement justified? Absolutely. Heirloom tomatoes are varieties of tomatoes that have been around about 50 years and are often connected to a specific region or even a farm. These tomatoes have been bred for taste, texture, heartiness, and sometimes resistance to pests and disease. But let me warn you, once you have bitten into a fresh, heirloom tomato, the thought of buying another grocery store tomato will make you want to cry. The reason for the hard, flavorless tomato that is sold in the grocery store is that heirloom tomatoes do not ship well, they are much too delicate. Whenever you buy heirloom tomatoes you may notice how thin their skin is and how easily they bruise—don’t worry, it is just important eat them before they spoil. Heirloom tomatoes are not just delicious, flavorful tomatoes, but they are also full of history, full of hard work, full of the spirit of your region. They are different everywhere you go, so eating one is like reading a story.

There are several big-name heirloom tomatoes that are popular in North Carolina, each with its own claim to flavor-fame. Here in NC we have a tomato connoisseur named Craig LeHoullier that grows a multitude of tomatoes, check out his website for all the tomato information you could ever need!  Here are a few that you will most likely come across:

Cherokee Purple is purple-skinned, red-fleshed, and sweet. It is big and thick—a perfect slicing tomato—and gloriously ugly.

Mortgage Lifter is pink and large, it can weigh up to three pounds. They have a mild flavor and are also fantastic sandwich tomatoes.

Brandywine tomatoes are the most well-known heirloom tomato. They are what you think of when you think of the perfect tomato—sweet, acidic flavor, perfect texture, and slicing size.

Chocolate Cherry tomatoes are small, brown cherry tomatoes with a reddish tint. They, unfortunately, do not taste like chocolate, but they are still deliciously sweet and delightfully juicy.

There’s a lot of heirloom tomato pride in the south and a strong love of the perfect tomato sandwich (white bread, Duke’s mayonnaise, tomato, and salt and pepper if you want). Heirloom tomatoes are a must for these summer delicacies, and now is the perfect time to experiment and find your favorite heirloom tomato. Scott Huler wrote a fantastic article about the tomato sandwich in Our State Magazine that will ring true to any southerner.

eggplant copy

Eggplant is in the same family as the tomato—the nightshade family—and is surprisingly difficult to grow because a multitude of pests are attracted to it. It was once considered to be poisonous and believed to cause insanity, but lucky for us eggplants are very edible and very delicious. There’s a bit of debate about whether or not eggplant is poisonous when eaten raw, and after a bit of research I found the general consensus believes that to be untrue. So, eat on eggplant lovers and don’t worry about undercooking your eggplant!

Eggplant is found in many different cultures and can be found in Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, and French cuisine. The most common variety of eggplant is the dark purple Globe eggplant, but they come in many different varieties from tiny green fruit to totally white. Here are just a few varieties you may find available in North Carolina this summer:

Ghostbuster eggplant is ghost-white and sweeter than the traditional dark purple eggplant. It is usually about 6-8 inches long and the skin is a bit thicker.

Hansel eggplant is a thinner, longer variety of eggplant that can be harvested at three inches or ten inches and still maintain it’s sweet flavor. It is considered to be very versatile because it grows well in many different regions and because of the long window you have to harvest the fruit before it begins to lose its flavor.

Nadia eggplant is a traditional Italian eggplant that grows to be about 7 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. It is similar to the globe eggplant and is firm and flavorful.

Orient Charm eggplant is thin and light purple. It is a sweeter variety that doesn’t last very long once it’s harvested, so eat within a few days once you get it!

Kermit eggplants are small, round, light green eggplants that are the American hybrid of the Thai eggplant. Their tender skin makes them easy to cook and they soak up different flavors well, so they’re very versatile. These also do not have a very long shelf life, so be sure to eat the quickly.

This is my favorite time of year, with the bounty of fresh produce knocking down our doors and filling up our counter space. Too much eggplant and tomato is never a problem in my book. Enjoy the variety and report back with any delicious recipes you find!