Low Country Shrimp & Grits is Lisa Dupar’s love letter to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
STORY BY NICOLE SPRINKLE
PHOTOS BY AUDREY KELLY
While Lisa Dupar was growing up, her grandparents had a little cabin that slept only two, on the river in Edisto Island, South Carolina. She and her cousins congregated there for Easter and other holidays, where they shrimped, crabbed, and fished for red drum right off the pier. On the way to the cabin, they’d pass a little vegetable stand called Geechie Boy, owned by third-generation corn farmers who also owned a mill.
Later, when Dupar was well into her career as a chef, Geechie Boy Mill would become nationally famous for their grits. Written up in the New York Times and touted by Charleston’s superstar chefs for being the first to mill corn with liquid nitrogen — which prevents chafing and, consequently, the loss of nutrients and flavor — Geechie Boy grits are “super tasty,” says Dupar. Plus, the farmers let chefs customize their blends: yellow corn, white corn, or any ratio of the two.
At Dupar’s beloved Redmond restaurant, Pomegranate Bistro, she sticks with the white grits for her Low Country Shrimp & Grits dish on the brunch menu, and feels nostalgic when she sees the grits delivered, knowing the farmers’ story intimately — having driven by the mill her whole life.
While Pomegranate Bistro has a handful of Southern dishes on the menu, it’s the shrimp and grits that Dupar considers the love letter to her hometown of Charleston. Besides the Geechie Boy connection, the dish is integral to Charleston, she explains, the way gumbo is to New Orleans or salmon to Seattle. And while not just any grits will do, neither will any old shrimp. “In the South, we have bumper stickers that say, ‘Friends don’t let friends eat anything but wild shrimp.’ The shrimp that come from the back creeks around the marshes are very sweet and seasonal. My cousin was a shrimper for a while, so I got really spoiled. You can’t get them year-round though.”
At her first Redmond restaurant, Southern Accents, Dupar made the grits with full cream. “Then I went to half-and-half, and now I’m down to milk,” she resignedly explains, citing the trend for healthier food. While Southern Accents was all about the South, Pomegranate Bistro, which she opened in 2005, strives to be relevant to more customers.
Besides shrimp and grits and fried chicken and waffles, you can get salads and pasta and other American staples. “We really opened Pomegranate Bistro for the liquor license,” she says, chuckling. In order to sell alcohol at catered events — the bulk of her business comes from catering — a liquor license tied to a restaurant that’s open five days a week or more with at least five entrees on the menu is required by law.
Now, however, the restaurant has become such a success that it’s about a third of her profits. “It’s a combo of the special-occasion food we do for catering and the ‘I’m a mom of a high school soccer player and volleyball player and what do we want during the week?’ So, there’s something for everyone, including kids, and a great cocktail menu for mom and dad.” Not to mention huge portions, like cinnamon rolls the size of your head, which Dupar swears isn’t related to her Southern upbringing but, rather, to the culturally engrained generosity of her Mexican chefs. “If they know that I ordered something, they really make it big. I’m like, ‘I’m feeling the love here, but I’m not going to eat all of this!’”
While you might expect a Southern mom to be behind Dupar’s culinary roots, her mother, in fact, didn’t cook a lick. Nor did her aunts. As an only child, whenever she got together with her cousins in Edisto, it was feast or famine — so they learned to cook for themselves. The only “recipe” from her mother came by way of a Betty Crocker cookbook for girls and boys. “It was called survival mode, because if they cooked, it would be frozen fish sticks. Before I was tall enough, my mom was all, ‘Here, let me pull up a stool so you can reach the stove.’” Out of those self-taught sessions came a love for food that carried her on to a culinary apprenticeship at a Westin hotel in Atlanta.
How, then, did this Southern gal end up in Seattle? While Dupar was serving as butcher at the Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta in the ’80s, the chef there told her about an opportunity to work as sous chef at the just-opening Palm Court Hotel, which is where she met her husband. Since then, it’s been 33 years of business in Redmond with her catering company and restaurants.
As for the obvious love for Pomegranate Bistro that translates to an overflow of customers in the cavernous space, particularly for weekend brunch, Dupar doesn’t mince words. “I call it a bad-weather restaurant. It’s a place where people come when they want to feel cozy.” Then she adds, “We opened up our patio today, and it’s full. A parking lot in Redmond, go figure.”
Lisa’s Low Country Shrimp & Grits
Serves: 6 | Cooking time: 60 minutes
Recipe by chef Lisa Dupar of Low Country Shrimp & Grits
When asked if I have a “signature dish,” I say this one is it! I was raised shrimpin’ and crabbin’ off the coast of South Carolina and have eaten my weight in Charleston shrimp and grits. You should be able to throw down with anyone using this shrimp and grits recipe. The reason I call these shrimp “sweet” is because when you pull creek shrimp out of the Intracoastal Waterway off Edisto Island, South Carolina, they are indescribably sweet. There’s nothing like them. They are tiny but packed with flavor.
- 3 cups milk, or half-and-half if you like it richer
- 1 teaspoon seasoning salt
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 cup stone-ground, speckled, yellow or white grits
- 2 pounds medium-size shrimp in the shell
- 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 small sweet yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 red or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
Shrimp butter sauce
- Reserved shrimp shells
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 small shallot, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
To make the grits: In a medium-size saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a simmer and stir in salt, garlic, pepper, cayenne, and butter. Slowly sprinkle the grits into the simmering milk. Stir to prevent lumps. Simmer on low about 20 to 25 minutes. The grits will continue to get thicker and thicker. Just before serving, add warm water or more milk to reach desired consistency. Keep the grits warm on the stove, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are ready. (The reason these grits take 20 minutes is because they are not instant and are not highly processed. Quality grits have speckles, which indicate the entire corn kernel has been ground and not removed during processing.)
To make the sweet shrimp: Clean and peel the raw shrimp, saving the shells for the sauce. In a heavy stainless-steel skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add the onion and peppers, and sauté until tender. Add the raw shrimp and cook until they just barely turn pink (do not overcook). With a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp, onion, and peppers from the pan, and reserve.
To make the shrimp butter sauce: In the same pan the shrimp were cooked in (there should be plenty of pan juices), sauté the shrimp shells until they turn pink. Add the garlic, shallot, rice wine vinegar, and white wine. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the bay leaf and cream. Continue to reduce sauce, until slightly thickened. Strain through a fine strainer. Press as much of the liquid from the shells as possible into a saucepan — there is flavor in these shells, so press hard! On the lowest heat, whisk in the soft butter, a tablespoon at a time. Remove from the heat so the sauce does not break (which means it got too hot and the butter separated out). Season to taste with cayenne, salt, and pepper if needed.
Add shrimp to the sauce and warm over low heat, being careful not to overcook the shrimp or break the sauce. Spoon the grits onto a plate. Make a well with a serving spoon, and spoon the shrimp over the grits. This is good with scrambled eggs and toast.
Mash note: You will see a lot of shrimp and grits recipes with bacon. If you have quality, fresh-caught, local sweet shrimp, you will want to taste the shrimp and not mask the flavor with smoky bacon. (Don’t get me wrong: I am the biggest fan of the pig!) Conversely, if you get shrimp that come from halfway around the world, they may need a little flavor enhancement, so go ahead and add that bacon.
Nicole Sprinkle is the former Food & Drink Editor at Seattle Weekly and has written for Cherry Bombe, the New York Times, Seattle magazine, and Taste, among others. She currently works at Sasquatch Books.