Sweet and crimson. Gently curved. Such smoothness against my lips. My chin was wet as I took a taste. Being my first time this was simply too good. I felt excited and guilty all at once. An exploration of pleasure, I savored every moment. But considering where I was this really should have been forbidden. I never had tasted shrimp like this before.
Sitting along the silken white beach of Gulf Shores, Alabama in the Deep South it was hot outside as I overlooked the white capped Gulf of Mexico. I took another bite. A mouthful of red and white ecstasy. Believe me when I say that everyone was doing it and no one was talking. I was in the heart of Dixie eating one of the locals best kept secrets. Royal Reds. Deepwater shrimp caught about 40 miles offshore at a depth of 2500 feet. To catch these amazing creatures is as much an art as it is a science. Harvesting them is much more dangerous and difficult than other species and contributes to the occasional limited availability of these stunningly delicious crustaceans.
Although satiated, I couldn’t stop thinking about this indulgence. I sought out and found one of my favorite southern dishes when I got back to Montgomery, Alabama while on business in the state capital. Montgomery has a genteel, sometimes tortured and certainly evolutionary history regarding civil rights in this country. But it has moved beyond that chapter and stands proudly as a quaint and quiet state capitol wrapped around southern hospitality that is welcoming and friendly. At the Renaissance Hotel, a representation of big hotel attitude with a decidedly southern twist, I ordered shrimp and cheese grits in the main dining room. True “Low Country” food that was gussied up. And it didn’t disappoint me. Sautéed Royal Reds. A little crispy bacon. A touch of cream. A discreet hint of unadulterated spice served up right in the Bible belt. This wasn’t a light dish, but I must say I was pleasantly enlightened by it.
Centuries before the civil rights movement Leonardo da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa for Tuscan royalty. He is now considered to be a leading figure of the Italian Renaissance. A truly gifted and evolved being, the term “genius” only partially represents his profound influence on Western culture in art, science and thinking. Although best known for his paintings, he was much more than an artist. He was also a scientist and an inventor. His risk taking for trying new things was well known and appreciated by the Italian aristocracy. I got to see some of Leonardo’s work in action at a worldwide traveling exhibition hosted by the Metreon in San Francisco last year. The exhibit showed working replicas of not only some of Leonardo’s revolutionary inventions such as suspension bridges that could be built without cables, but also the first submarine and the concept of a helicopter. Leonardo had a keen sense for looking at a problem and not allowing current methods and ways of doing things from stopping innovation. He wasn’t just an inventor, a scientist or an artist…In a matter of speaking he was a chef.
I really enjoy Southern cooking but I am always looking at new ways of innovating old favorites. I wanted to update my very personal experience with shrimp and grits into something with Southern and Italian Renaissance appeal. And Leonardo’s Italian roots provided me exactly what I needed.
I used a good quality Hawaiian Pink Shrimp for this recipe. Although I didn’t use Royal Reds here they are worth trying in this recipe, or just by themselves. You can buy them mail order from several gulf based purveyors including http://www.joepattis.com/. Not well known outside of Alabama and Florida, if you are in this part of the country they are absolutely worth trying.
Rather than using bacon I substituted pancetta for this dish and it definitely makes this an Italian invention. I also created a light sauce cooking down some garden grown Italian Roma tomatoes and adding flour to make a roux base, complemented with shrimp stock I made from the shells. It’s very easy to make a simple and subtle stock of water and shrimp shells and let that cook down for 40 minutes while you prepare everything else.
I don’t really believe in all the hysteria of not allowing the use of cheese with seafood. While I understand and appreciate the competing flavor profile against more delicate seafood I used sweeter and milder cheese elements including creamy mascarpone and a touch of fontina. I think I win the argument for this specific preparation.
And finally, while I laugh at and love the South’s aversion to vegetables unless they are fried I feel that the inclusion of cremini mushrooms, which are simply small portobellos, add a fun earthiness and texture that complement the overall dish.
I was stuck writing this post, as I have wanted to do this one for a while now. Fortunately my lovely and insightful wife Jennifer provided me some needed momentum to make the Italian connection. And one of my absolute favorite food bloggers, Claudia over at Cook eat FRET, shared some "twisted" southern inspiration from her adopted hometown of Nashville, TN to help me along as well.
Although Leonardo would probably not actually have eaten this dish, he was a noted vegetarian after all, I would gladly have this dish as my Last Supper…
Recipe for Shrimp & Grits “da Vinci” Style
12 good quality shrimp (with shells if you are making stock)
2 oz pancetta, chopped into ½” pieces
10 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
2 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper
For the Polenta
1 cup polenta
1 cup milk
2 cups water
4 oz Mascarpone
1 oz Fontina
4 T Parmesan
¼ cup cream
For the Shrimp and Gravy
2 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves
2 Italian Roma Tomatoes, chopped
1 TBSP flour
1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
¼ to ½ cup shrimp stock (recipe below, or use fish stock from your grocer)
Pinch of red chile pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Italian Parsley, chopped for garnish
Lemon Zest for garnish
Turn the oven on to 250 degrees. Wash the shrimp and shell them. Dry the shrimp and refrigerate. In a saucepan add one cup of water and bring to a low boil. Add the shrimp shells and let cook down for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain the stock and set aside. You should have about ½ cup of stock.
While the stock is cooking heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the pancetta. Cook until crispy, stirring occasionally, about 5-6 minutes. Drain pancetta on a paper towel and reserve the pan and drippings.
Using a 3 quart saucepan, place on a medium high flame and add 2 cups of water and 1 cup of milk. When the liquid boils turn the heat down to medium and slowly whisk in the polenta in a thin stream. Stir constantly. This should take about 1-2 minutes but it is worth it. Do not add the polenta all it once or it will become lumpy and the end product will not have a smooth and delicious texture Leonardo would approve of. Lower the flame to low-medium. You want a slight bubbling of the polenta mixture, more than a simmer, less than a boil. Stir every so often (but not constantly) so that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan. If the mixture starts to get too thick, turn the heat down and add some milk. Cook and stir for 25 minutes.
While the polenta is cooking prepare the mushrooms. In another sauté pan over medium high heat add 2 T olive oil. When hot add the mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring to make sure all sides get cooked and slightly caramelized. Add salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat and place in a warm oven along with two plates you will use for serving.
Re-heat the saucepan with pancetta drippings over a medium high flame. Salt and pepper the shrimp lightly and add to the pan. Cook for 90 seconds on each side so it is slightly caramelized. Remove shrimp from the pan and place on a plate. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds to one minute until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes to the pan and cook over high heat for 2 minutes until they begin to break down. Lower the heat and add the flour. Cook for about 1 minute. This will create a reddish blond roux (that’s a sauce base, not the name of a New Orleans hair dresser). Add the Worcestershire sauce and 1/4 cup of shrimp stock. Cook gently for about 1-2 minutes until combined and slightly thickened. If too thick, add more stock. Strain the sauce and add back into the saucepan. Add a pinch of the chile flakes to the sauce and then add the shrimp back into the pan. Turn off the heat.
Add the cheese and cream to the polenta and mix well. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Mound one cup of cooked polenta on a warm plate and spread it out slightly. Place 6 shrimp and half of the mushrooms over the polenta. Spoon the sauce on top and around the plate. Garnish with chopped parsley and grated lemon zest. Pour a glass of Pinot Grigio with this and I’ll tell you how stunning and smart you look against the backdrop of a Southern Italian sunset...