Mighty morsels

 Maine shrimp at the center, with Southern sides
By TODD RICHARD  |  December 13, 2006

NORTH + SOUTH: From land and sea.

The refrain is clear in my head: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” No, we are not speaking of Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other celebration of the sort. For Mainers, this time of year is special: it’s Maine shrimp season!

Throughout the year, I have dreams of succulent little Maine shrimp, decked out in little red stocking caps, dancing around my Christmas tree. Too late for Thanksgiving, but just in time for the December holidays, these little morsels have risen to the top of my yearly food calendar. Maine shrimp (available from December to April) now tie with summer’s Vidalia onions as my favorite seasonal delights.

Last week saw the first snow of the season here in Portland. To celebrate snow (at least for some of us) and shrimp, a special dinner was in order to offer warmth and comfort to battle the cold. It was clearly time for shrimp and grits.

People down south are infinitely more comfortable with grits than us northerners. For anyone who missed that hilarious scene in the movie My Cousin Vinny, grits are really nothing to be afraid of. Grits made from the hominy, or white part, of the corn kernel. It is dried and ground, then cooked like a porridge, much like Italy’s polenta. You can buy it in the grocery store, finding it right next to the oatmeal and other hot cereals. Southerners (to whom I claim partial membership) have been known to consume grits as their starch of choice at any meal of the day. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the North and South just can’t seem to get it together.

While at the store, staring distrustfully at the grits, there are a few other things you’ll need. Pick up a generous amount of sharp cheddar. And, if you don’t have some handy in the fridge, make sure to get milk and butter. It wouldn’t hurt to get a head of garlic and a shallot. Head to the freezer section next, and get a package of frozen collard greens.

On the way home from the grocery store, stop at your fave fish market. At this point in the season, the Maine shrimp catch has been plentiful and the prices reflect this. You are likely to find a pound of whole shrimp (that’s head and tail on, uncooked shrimp) for $1.49 a pound. That’s wicked cheap! You are better off, though, opting for the pound of sweet little shrimp meat for $4.99. The convenience is worth it.

Cook the grits according to the directions, using milk instead of water. As they thicken, add a half-cup of shredded cheddar for every serving you are cooking, then season to taste with a pat or two of butter, salt, and cracked black pepper. Keep stirring until they are just about to the point where your spoon might stand up. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit, as they will continue to firm up.

Meanwhile, place the frozen collard greens in a pot with just enough water to cover the bottom. Since they are already cooked, simmer these for a few minutes and season to taste. If you like, you can add a slice of bacon as they cook.

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