I spent the better part of last week at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. My 86-year-old father underwent successful heart surgery. His aortic valve was replaced — his third.
This time, despite his age and the risk, waiting while my father was in surgery felt easier than it did 15 years ago. My brother Marty and I were able to work remotely, keeping us distracted. My mother took breaks from reading by watching videos on her iPad and catching up on email from friends. Few things cheered me more, though, than the unexpected sound and sight of Jerry and Clara — robots that deliver medicine to the nurse stations.
Jerry’s cute, isn’t he?
I arrived home in Santa Barbara too late for the Saturday Farmers Market, so no photos of cheery flowers and colorful winter produce this week. But, I wanted to share a comforting, restorative dish that I’ve made a few times over the last few weeks. I call it Santa Barbara-style Shrimp and Grits. A sweet and slightly spicy tomato sauce complements the shrimp. Cooked bits of bacon stirred into the sauce before serving provide crunch and a hint of smoky flavor. And, really, what’s not to like about creamy, buttery grits as the base of a dish.
Both the sauce and grits come together quickly, so this dish makes a satisfying weeknight winter meal, when that’s what you’re craving.
A few notes before the recipe:
Cook the bacon until it’s crisp. You’ll want the bits crunchy before you add them to the sauce right before serving.
You’ll cook the shrimp in the rendered bacon fat. They only need two minutes in that hot pan. Take them out as soon as they blush pink.
I used Summer-in-a-Jar cherry tomatoes from Roots Organic Farm in Los Olivos. The 32-oz jar is packed to the top with crazy sweet tomatoes and a very small amount of liquid. While I didn’t test it, I think a 28-oz can of your favorite tomatoes in sauce is a fine substitute. When I cook with my jarred tomatoes, I add water to the pan to help create the sauce. You won’t need additional liquid with tomatoes packed in sauce.
Once you have all of the ingredients for the sauce in the saute pan, cook it for about 15-20 minutes. You want the sauce to thicken up a bit, so keep an eye on it. Don’t add the bacon and cooked shrimp until right before serving. You don’t want the shrimp to get tough and you want the bacon to stay as crisp as possible.
The grits: I bought a stone-ground variety and while I expected to stir for awhile, it only took five minutes. Rather than cook your grits only in water, use 2/3 whole milk and 1/3 water — they’ll be incredibly creamy. I dropped a couple of tablespoons of European-style, unsalted butter in the grits and ground in some fresh pepper as soon as I took the pot off of the heat. A few tablespoons of grated cheddar or parmesan would be great, too if you’re up for a richer dish.
- 2 slices bacon, sliced into ¼-inch pieces
- 12 oz shrimp (26-30 count) (I buy shrimp that already is cleaned and deveined)
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup diced onion (1/2 large)
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 red or orange bell pepper, seeds removed, cut into ½-inch pieces
- ½ jalapeno, seeds removed and finely minced
- 28 oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes in sauce
- ¾-1 tsp kosher salt
- freshly-ground pepper to taste
- ¼ tsp Tabasco or Chrystal sauce
- for the grits:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup stone-ground grits
- freshly-ground pepper to taste
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (I use European-style butter)
- Tabasco or Chrystal sauce for serving
- Cook the bacon in a large saute pan for 5-7 minutes until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces from the pan and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate.
- Add the shrimp to the hot pan and cook them in the bacon fat for just two minutes. As soon as they are pink, remove them from the pan and set them aside in a bowl.
- Add 2 Tablespoons olive oil to the pan. When the oil begins to shimmer add the chopped onions and cook them until soft, scraping up the bits of bacon and shrimp. It will take about 5 minutes.
- Add the minced garlic to the saute pan and cook for one minute. Add the chopped bell pepper and the minced jalapeno, ½ teaspoon salt, freshly-ground pepper and cook until soft; about 7 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and ¼ teaspoon salt and bring the sauce to a boil. Turn the heat down slightly and cook for about 15 minutes. You want the sauce to reduce and thicken a bit. Taste for seasoning and then turn off the heat.
- Add the cooked bacon and shrimp to the tomato sauce right before serving.
- Make the grits:
- Bring 2 cups of whole milk, 1 cup water and 1 teaspoon kosher salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the grits in a steady stream, turn down the heat a bit and stir constantly. Cook for about 5 minutes until creamy (Be careful, the hot mixture will bubble and splatter a bit). Remove the saucepan from the heat, stir in the butter and freshly-ground pepper to taste.
- To serve: Put a couple of generous spoonfuls of the steaming grits in a shallow bowl. Ladle on the chunky tomato sauce, and dial up heat if you like with a shake or two or three of Tabasco or Chrysal Sauce before digging in.