SHRIMP & GRITS AT CROOK’S CORNER
CHAPEL HILL, NC
Shrimp and grits are the staple of the tidewater and there as many opinions in the Carolina’s about their relative quality as they are opinions about BBQ in Memphis. I happen to like both shrimp and grits, separately or in combination. I have eaten shrimp and grits every time I’ve had the chance, in the Carolina’s and all over the south.
While there are some very good examples available at places like the Grove Gill in Memphis and City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, I have to say that neither place can hold a candle to most of the Carolina eateries. While I do not claim to be anywhere near a shrimp and grits expert, I do have a basic understanding of what makes them work so well together.
There are three important elements in the dish and the quality of each has a profound effect on the final product. These elements are surprisingly, shrimp, grits and the sauce the shrimp are cooked in. That’s about it, there is nothing else involved, but the outcome can vary be a large margin. I want to talk about the shrimp and grits as served at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, NC.
On my recent visit, I chose to sit inside in the air-conditioning when I would have normally insisted on sitting in the courtyard. It was just too darn hot to let my love of ambiance overcome my comfort level. I had to forego eating in a cane break.
Once seated, I ordered a seasonal appetizer of fresh figs, tasso ham and a dollop of homemade mayonnaise. The figs were fat and juicy and just off some local fig tree. They were sliced in half and a very thin piece of tasso was laid across the fruit and topped with the mayo. The flavors melded together in a symphony that danced across the tongue. I could have eaten about a bushel.
Of course I ordered the low country shrimp and grits for my entrée and it met all of my expectations. Let’s start with the grits, as they were close to perfection. My personal standard for excellence in grits is breakfast at the Ansley Golf Club in Atlanta. I’ll talk about grits in a later issue, and believe me, the Ansley will be featured.
The grits at Crook’s Corner were close to perfection. They use high quality stone ground grits and slow cook them with cream and real butter. They are perfectly salted which is pretty unusual in itself. They made the perfect base for the rest of the dish.
The second ingredient was the shrimp. They were local to North Carolina, they were fresh, they were deveined, they were of a perfect medium size, and there were a bunch of them. All that was left was the preparation of the sauce that would be used to sauté the shrimp and cover the grits. This is clearly the heart of the dish as no amount of great grits and plump and juicy shrimp can compensate for a weak sauce.
The chef at Crook’s leaned to the side of simplicity in preparing his sauce. He finely chopped green onions and tasso ham into very small pieces. He then sautéed these in olive oil with a very light touch of seasonings. The shrimp were added and heated to just the right moment, they were not over cooked as is so often the case. The gentle hand with the seasonings allowed the full flavor of the shrimp to be the dominant taste of the dish. Fresh French bread accompanied a house salad to complete the meal.
I cannot say with any authority that the shrimp and grits are the best in the Carolina’s as I haven’t eaten in enough places to have a statistically valid sample. I can say, however, without hesitation they are the best I have ever eaten.