Shrimp and grits can be a magical experience. Creamy, buttery, unctuous, and cheesy, it is one of the great culinary exports of the American South.
One day I was thinking about how to incorporate shrimp and grits into a course at my Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, EL Ideas. The way the staff and I come up with dishes can look a bit like mind-mapping, and it’s amazing how many ideas come out of wordplay and free association. There are literally and figuratively no barriers in our kitchen. No idea is too silly or outrageous. It was during one of these sessions that I thought of doing a popcorn and shrimp dish. One of our chefs mentioned making the grits with popcorn instead of the usual cornmeal. Yes. Another chef suggested using popcorn shrimp in the dish, and all of a sudden the concept was too kitschy to turn away from.
Popcorn grits is not an original idea. I first read about it in chef Daniel Patterson’s cookbook Coi: Stories and Recipes, so we turned there for reference. To my surprise, turning popcorn into grits is remarkably easy. You take popped popcorn and add it to heavy cream, then cook it down. And that’s all. Chef Patterson painstakingly passes the popcorn through a drum sieve, but I don’t process or pass them at all, since I prefer a chunky mouthfeel (in the style of Baker Miller’s grits). Of course, you can always pulse it in a food processor to achieve a creamier texture.
The rest of the dish couldn’t be easier. I quickly sauté the shrimp in butter with some minced garlic and Old Bay seasoning, then deglaze it at the last second with the Pernod. What’s notable is the way I cook the dish at EL Ideas is exactly the same way I’d cook it at home. Beginning to end, you could have shrimp and grits at your dinner table in about 15 minutes.
- ½ lb. rock shrimp, or any peeled/deveined shrimp
- 8 cups popped popcorn
- 1½ cups heavy cream
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Old Bay seasoning
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Sharp cheddar cheese, preferably from a block (shredded is okay)
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 6 pieces of thinly julienned scallions
- Pernod (or a squeeze of lemon juice)
Pop popcorn using your favorite method. Reserve a handful of popcorn for garnish, and put the rest into a large stainless steel saucepan. Place on medium-high heat on the stovetop and pour in the heavy cream. The popcorn will start deflating and absorbing the cream. Mix well with a wooden spoon over the heat, until it begins to resemble porridge. Add a few good pinches of Old Bay seasoning to taste, plus a good pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Keep tasting and adjusting—just be careful not to overseason. Shred cheddar cheese, as much as or as little as you like, and add it to the pot. Finally, splash in a swig of Pernod or a squeeze of lemon. At this point, you can either serve the popcorn grits as-is, which will have a chunky and toothsome consistency. You could also put it through a food processor to achieve something smoother. Put the grits aside for now.
In a separate skillet over medium-high heat, add the butter and minced garlic, and allow garlic to lightly cook for 30 seconds. Add a pinch of Old Bay into this butter mixture. Then add the shrimp and cook for about 60-90 seconds. You want the shrimp to barely cook through. While this is cooking, add a dash of Pernod (or lemon juice), and finally, a pinch of salt and pepper at the end.
Return to the popcorn grits. You may need to add a touch more cream when you stir it together, as the corn will absorb the liquid. Place grits on a serving plate, place shrimp on top, and a few pieces of popped popcorn you reserved at the beginning. If you like, grate more cheddar cheese on top and melt under the broiler for 30-45 seconds. Garnish plate with a dusting of Old Bay. Finally, spoon some of the butter-garlic poaching sauce around the grits. Serve immediately.