When my husband and I decided to escape a boring retirement by moving from Charleston to the French countryside, I was excited, yet panicked when it came to the thought of cooking . While I adore French food, I wasn’t ready to give up my southern cuisine when it came to home cooking. How would I manage in a country that has never heard of grits or summer squash? Les biscuits here are cookies, they wouldn’t know a collard green from a black-eyed pea cake, and they think corn is for cows. The list of ingredients in my Charleston pantry that are absent in my French supermarché is long. On the trip over, my suitcase bulged with southern necessities, plus some seed packets that would hopefully cause some southern vegetables to spring from my potager.
The Burgundy countryside where we live in a medieval château with a wonderful French couple is not Paris, after all, but la France profonde. I was resigned to doing without some of my tried and true regional ingredients, but nothing prepared me for the fact that so MANY ingredients would vary in flavor or texture. From mayonnaise to moutarde, nothing is quite as it seems. Flour comes in a baffling assortment, none with the exact texture of my Martha White. Sweet, flaked Coconut is chopped and unsweetened, gelatin comes in thin sheets, and brown sugar, a staple of pecan pie and chocolate chip cookies, is completely unknown. These challenges, combined with my less than perfect French, meant that a trip to the grocery store could take hours, and trusted recipes must be tested and tweaked.
The French, of course, know a thing or two about cooking themselves and are as food-obsessed as southerners. There are parallels with the southern way of cooking and dining which make us feel at right at home. Good food is the heart and soul of their culture and is proudly regional. Sunday lunch, that sacred French family fête, is not unlike the southern Sunday supper, with family gathered all around for a feast. On warm days meals are likely to be en plein air, conjuring up lunches on shady southern porches.
We love French cuisine, and we’re happily surrounded by it here, in restaurants and at friend’s homes. But chez nous, I cook the way I’ve always loved best, while adding some French panache to my beloved old standbys, even creating some fusion from my confusion.
It’s fun to introduce southern dishes to our curious, and happily fearless, French friends. They’ve bravely tackled southern delicacies like fried green tomatoes, barbeque chicken, and Frogmore stew. And especially Charleston shrimp and grits (I’ve included that very special recipe here). What better way to bond with our new French neighbors than over a shared passion—the love of good food and friends gathered at table.
In this famous Charleston dish, the shrimp is spooned over hot grits. For everyday, unadorned quick grits are a fine and fast alternative. For company, I often make my “frenchified” baked cheese garlic grits, which I scoop out onto the plates hot from the oven and top with the shrimp (see recipe at www.southernfriedfrench.com, blog dated April 26. Baked cheese grits are great as a fancy side dish, or for brunch).
- 700 grams (1 ½ pounds) cooked shrimp in shell with heads
- ¼ c. white wine
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons of red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ¾ c. quick grits (NOT instant)
- 2 ½ cups water
- ½ cup milk
- ¼ teaspoon of salt or to taste
- 2 tablespoons of butter, divided
- ¼ cup heavy cream (optional – for a lighter version, just leave it out))
- Chopped fresh herbs to garnish (such as parsley or chives)
1. Make stock: Rinse and peel the shrimp, reserving shells and heads. In a small saucepan add wine to shells and heads then add water to cover them. Cover pan and cook at a lively simmer about 20 minutes. Strain off liquid and set aside, discarding shells. You should have about ½ cup. If you have too much, boil to reduce it.
2. For grits: Bring water, milk, and salt just to a boil. Stir in grits and immediately reduce heat to low. Cook about 5 minutes on slow simmer until grits are thick, stirring often (don’t forget to stir, or they will be lumpy). Stir in 1 table spoon butter. Set grits aside, keep warm.
3. While grits cook, in heavy skillet sauté onions and peppers until onions are tender. Add garlic and cook about a minute or two longer, stirring a bit. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.
4. Add stock to pan, raising heat to high. Reduce by half. Stir in 1 table spoon of butter OR ¼ cup heavy cream. If needed, or if not using cream, thicken sauce with a teaspoon or more of cornstarch mixed with cold water. Add shrimp, stirring, just to heat.
5. Divide grits among hot plates or pasta bowls, top with shrimp mixture, sprinkle with herbs, and serve with a smile.