As I said, in Jacksonville NC yesterday we drove up to a stoplight at an intersection where there was a fish market on the corner across the street. Ma said she had been wanting to try it for a while, and I said well, there is no time like the present. We pulled in and parked.
Jacksonville NC, for those who don't know, is a military town. It is the site of the largest Marine base in the U.S., Camp Lejeune. The population is about 70,000, and I wouldn't be surprised if more than half of those people were Marines and their families.
The fish market was a long low brick building with two entrances, one leading into the restaurant and the other into the market where fresh fish is sold. Three or four employees waited on customers and prepared fish for them, scaling, gutting, and filleting the flounder, bluefish, and mullets customers bought.
The customers in the market when we arrived were three or four young Asian people who spoke to each other in their own language but ordered in English, buying fresh whole fish, along with four or five African-American people doing the same. We were the only Euro-Americans in the place, except for the ones behind the counter.
I bought a bluefish which we will eat soon and a pound of big shrimp — twenty of them, to be precise. As Ma and I drove home, we talked about what we would have for dinner. Unfortunately, Ma is allergic to shrimp. I said we had some broccoli and some green beans I could have with shrimp. She said what about potatoes — do you want to stop and buy some?
And then I thought of grits. Actually, at lunch in Beaufort the day before, my friend Monet's mother had asked if the restaurant served shrimp and grits. In fact, that is a more South Carolina than North Carolina concoction. But Ma was born in South Carolina and my father was born in North Carolina, so I've got mixed blood in my veins and a cross-cultural palate.
When we got home, I cleaned the shrimp, which were sold headed but with the shells on. To clean them, you peel off the shell and then you cut a slit down the back of each shrimp and remove the gut by running the shrimp under cold water. The main reason to remove the digestive tract is that it is often full of sand, and gritty shrimp is not the same thing as shrimp and grits.
Then I started ½ cup of grits cooking in two cups of water. I poured the grits into water that I had heated almost to boiling in the microwave, stirred them well, and then finished the cooking in the microwave.
Meanwhile, I heated a small amount of vegetable oil in a skillet, and when it was very hot I placed the shrimp in the pan and seared each one on both sides.
Oh, I almost forgot about the okra. I had opened Ma's freezer for something else and there, staring me in the face, was half a bag of frozen okra. That sounded perfect as a vegetable to have with something as Southern as shrimp and grits. So I put a pot of water on the stove, brought it to boiling, and put the okra in to cook for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, I sprinkled some salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes on the seared shrimp and turned the heat down. I added in a good tablespoon of butter for flavor, and I put some of the boiled okra in the pan too. At that point, the grits were cooked: they were loose and soft, not too liquid and certainly not too dry and pasty.
Then all there was to do was to spoon some grits into a soup bowl and serve some shrimp and okra on top, with the buttery, peppery cooking sauce drizzled on top. It's a dish I will make again soon.