The Year of Shrimp and Grits

Karen’s Shrimp and Grits
What better way to ring out the old year and ring in the new than by celebrating the serendipity of the last 365 days?  If Christmas is all about life’s nostalgia and tradition, then New Year’s Eve should be about reveling in its surprises.  This time of year, I like to think not only of the people and circumstances that have been written into my memory, but also, and most especially, the food.  Memorable dishes linger the same way a lover’s kiss is written into the skin—especially those dishes I’ve discovered and then made my own. 

In 2013, it was Shrimp and Grits.

Oak’s Shrimp and Grits
Last spring, when the air was still crisp with winter and the sun merely hinted at the warmth to come, I had lunch with my friend Giulia at Oak at Fourteenth.  The shrimp and grits on their menu is a revelation:  light, creamy, full of briny seafood flavor, with just the right amount of heat to warm the belly on a windy day.  I tried to replicate this yummy concoction for the city-dwelling boyfriend by culling ideas from several recipes, using my palate and memory as a guide. 

My first Shrimp and Grits

I used Tasso ham for smokiness and spice, cream for richness, tomatoes to replicate the color of the dish and, for good measure, some Old Bay for Cajun flavor. Much to my dismay, my grits sagged under too much dry spice and tasted sharp and heavy, while the memory of Oak’s floated in a thin, clear air. Something was missing, and clearly my technique was off. Oak’s dish had a clean crispness mine couldn’t begin to approach.  
Everywhere I went, I raved about the shrimp and grits, and I sent more than one friend to Oak to give them a try.  I went back again and again and even sent the chef my email, asking simply for the ingredient list.  Then, the food gods smiled on me:  My sister and fellow-foodie, Nancy, came across the recipe in a local newspaper and passed it along. Turns out the secret ingredient is fennel.  But the recipe, which looks easy, is deceptive.  I had to make some of my own amendments, but after one experimental attempt, I was enjoying a dish that has all my friend raving.

Randy’s Willie Cake
So in celebration of the old year and anticipation of the new, Greg and I gathered with my Nebraska neighbors Sandi and Randy for oysters Rockefeller, Shrimp and Grits, and Randy’s Willie cake.  We toasted each other and the passing of what has been a tough year on the mountain with Chambord-laced Cava and thought about the utter riches of simple pleasures.  When I tasted the sweetness of shrimp thick with rich cheesy grits lightened by the cleanness of fennel and crisp white wine, I was reminded not only of the importance of love and friendship and the sharing of food, but of curiosity and surprise and serendipity.  I whispered a little prayer of thanks and raised a glass to the discovery of days to come.  
Happy 2014!
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