Southern Staples: Rich and Creamy Grits with Shrimp in Red Eye Gravy

Get Chef Darin Sehnert's recipes for classic Southern comfort food.
By: Kelsey Vala

Every recipe has a story to tell,” explains Chef Darin Sehnert of Savannah, Georgia. I have found that this statement couldn’t be truer for Southern recipes, which embody American culinary heritage rooted in technique and tradition. Though I didn’t grow up in the South, and I essentially have no ties to Southern cuisine, I am currently in the throes of a love affair with all things Southern, from biscuits and gravy to barbecue-slathered pork ribs. This all started the summer I worked at a barbecue restaurant in Vermont, where I instantly developed an appreciation for pulled pork, collard greens and pecan pie. With folk recipes dating back to the birth of our nation, it’s no wonder that Chef Darin says recipes contain stories.

Consider Shrimp and Grits. This elegant, yet simple, Southern staple started out with humble roots as just a fisherman’s breakfast. Chef Darin shared his recipe for Rich and Creamy Grits with Shrimp in Red Eye Gravy with us.

Grits are easy to get wrong, especially when cooked quickly in water. But when grits are cooked gently, each grain becomes tender and swollen with the chicken stock and milk in which it is cooked. And as is true with barbecue, grits benefit from “low and slow” cooking. Finish off the grits with a swirl of butter and heavy cream. The grains will plump up and become creamy, creating the perfect bed for the shrimp and gravy.

Traditionally, red eye gravy is made by frying up bits of ham and deglazing the pan with black coffee, which adds a savory depth and slight bitterness. In this version, Chef Darin uses smoked bacon instead (bacon and coffee just happen to be my two favorite foods-- it’s no wonder I love this dish so much!). First, fry a bit of smoked bacon, then caramelize peppers, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms in the rendered fat. Finally, deglaze with some cold black coffee, scraping up all the flavorful bits stuck to the pan. The dish is finished by poaching the shrimp in the steaming hot gravy. This historical dish rooted in Southern cuisine is a complete meal in itself.

Recipe courtesy Chef Darin Sehnert

Ingredients:
  • 3 cups milk
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups quick cooking grits
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream

Directions:

Combine the milk, chicken stock, salt and pepper in a large 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Add the grits and let sit for about 10 minutes to allow the grits to begin absorbing liquid. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and turn the heat down to the lowest setting on the stove. Continue cooking until the liquid is mostly absorbed, 45 minutes to 1 hour. If the consistency gets too thick, you can always add more stock or milk.

Stir in the butter, cheese and cream. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve warm.

Recipe courtesy Chef Darin Sehnert

Ingredients:
  • 4 strips smoked bacon, cut cross-wise into thin strips
  • 4 to 6 branches fresh thyme
  • 1 cup finely diced yellow onion
  • 1 cup finely diced green bell pepper
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 cup cold black coffee
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
  • 1/4 cup Madeira wine or sherry or brandy
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 pound large 16-20 count uncooked shrimp, peeled
  • Creamy grits, for serving

Directions:

Place bacon in large saute or braising pan and cook over medium-high heat until the fat is rendered. Meanwhile, bruise the whole thyme sprigs by lightly pounding with the side of the wide end of a chef's knife. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper-towel-lined plate and set aside. Leave the bacon grease in the pan for cooking the vegetables.

Add the bruised thyme, onions and bell peppers to the bacon grease. Sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper. Stir to coat with the bacon grease and spread the vegetables evenly across the bottom of the pan. Cook until the peppers and onions are nicely browned. Add the butter and allow it to melt. Add the mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes and reserved bacon and another sprinkling of salt and black pepper. Cook until the mushrooms and tomatoes have cooked down and given off their juices.

Deglaze the pan with the coffee and stir to scrape up cooked-on bits. Allow the coffee to cook down until reduced by half, and then add the chicken broth and hot pepper sauce. While the chicken broth is coming to a simmer, begin pulling the thyme sprigs from the pan, scraping the stems with the edge of a spoon to remove the leaves that haven't yet fallen off. Discard the stems.

When the mixture comes to a simmer, mix together the Madeira and cornstarch, and then add into the pan. Cook until thickened to a sauce-like consistency. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, black pepper or hot pepper sauce. Stir in the peeled shrimp and cook until they just turn pink, about 2 minutes. Serve over creamy grits.

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