Cajun Shrimp & Garlicky Cheese Grits

Take a road trip across the Southeast, and you’ll find a wide array of flavors and presentation in dishes that all claim to be “shrimp and grits.”

And they all are.

There is no right-or-wrong when it comes to this classic southern dish. Whether served with a lush and savory gravy, or piled high with onions, peppers and tomatoes, or spiked with spicy andouille or tasso ham, cheese or no cheese, you are guaranteed a flavorful experience. Over the 34 years that I’ve lived in N.C., I’ve developed my own recipe into what I believe captures the best of all the varieties I’ve tasted around these parts, though I can’t claim to make it the same every time. My “comfort du jour” usually depends on what ingredients are in the fridge, and many times, my decision to make shrimp and grits is a last-minute one.

I almost always have good quality, wild American shrimp in the freezer. I’m guaranteed to have some kind of pork product—ham, bacon, sausage or chorizo—and just about any kind of onion or pepper works, so whatever I have on hand can slide into place. I may or may not incorporate cheese, depending on the other ingredients. One thing that remains constant is my method of cooking the grits. You cannot rush them, and for goodness sake, don’t cheat yourself by using instant. It should take a minimum of 20 minutes on the stove, unless you have, you know, “magic grits.” I think we all remember how that played out in My Cousin Vinny.

If you have ever eaten grits and thought they were, well, gritty—the simple explanation is that they were not cooked long enough or with enough liquid. Grits (or polenta, which is nearly the same thing) are made of broken-down, dried corn. They are tooth-cracking hard straight from the package, and I have found that it takes a good bit longer than the package instructions suggest to get them right. They are kind of like oatmeal in that regard—you can have creamy, soft oatmeal that drips off the spoon, or sticky, gloppy oatmeal that sticks to everything it touches. The difference is all in the cooking process.

The other complaint some people have about grits is a common one—“they’re so bland.” And if you use only water to cook them, they certainly are. Grits do not have much flavor on their own, but you can coax the flavor out of those dry little kernels with the right technique and the right stuff. In other words, ignore the package instructions and use your own cooking instincts. There is no magic to it. 😉

Here’s my secret for perfect, creamy grits every time: treat them like risotto. Cook them low and slow, with plenty of broth additions and plenty of stirring, and finish them with a little cream or half and half. You’ll be rewarded with a silky, luxurious base for whatever you choose to pile on top of them.

These grits are perfectly creamy, with no clumps and no gritty texture.

For this batch of shrimp and grits, I used smoked andouille sausage, cut up and lightly fried until the edges were crispy, sautéed cremini mushrooms, a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning on the shrimp, and scallions on top to finish the dish. The grits, as always, were creamy and delicious, with a few cloves of chopped garlic in the broth and just enough cheddar cheese at the end, to give them some extra body, and a few shakes of RedHot sauce for tangy-spicy flavor.

This recipe serves 2, with a scoop of grits left over to go under your weekend eggs.

There’s so much texture here, beginning with the juicy shrimp and crispy sausage, and down to the creamy, cheesy grits. This is one of our faves!

Ingredients

1 cup yellow grits, a.k.a. polenta* (see notes)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

About 2 cups hot water, as needed for cooking the grits*

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Frank’s RedHot Original sauce, to taste*

2 Tbsp. light cream or half and half*

1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

2 links smoked andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 2/3 pound of wild-caught shrimp, peeled and de-veined

A few shakes of your favorite Cajun seasoning*

2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and sliced

*Notes

For the best results, and creamy grits, do not use anything packaged as “instant.” My preferred brand is Bob’s Red Mill polenta, which you can find in well-stocked supermarkets, including Super Walmart.

It’s helpful to heat the water in a teakettle or the microwave ahead of time and keep it on standby. When you add liquid to polenta or risotto that is already cooking, you want the liquid to be warm.

As always, you will need to adjust the salt amount to work with your other ingredients. I lean toward low-sodium versions of broth and seasonings so that I have more control of the overall salt in my recipes. Check your labels and taste as you go.

I love the flavor of RedHot sauce, but Texas Pete or Tabasco would also be good for a spike of flavor in the grits.

For readers abroad, “half and half” is a term used to describe a popular dairy product in the U.S. It is essentially equal parts light cream and whole milk, with about 12% milkfat.

We use a dry Cajun seasoning that my husband picked up in New Orleans, but there are plenty of options available in your supermarket. You could also make up your own, with some combination of garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, black pepper and thyme.

Instructions

I’m a visual learner. If you are, too, then follow along with my slideshow or keep scrolling for written instructions and a pdf you can download for your recipe files.

  1. Place a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add vegetable broth, garlic, salt and pepper, and heat to nearly boiling. Add polenta, stirring constantly until it is fully mixed with the broth and no visible clumps appear. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
  2. Add hot water, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue with frequent stirring until each addition is absorbed and grits take on a smooth, creamy appearance. This may be up to 2 cups of additional liquid, and may take as long as 40 minutes.
  3. When grits achieve desired consistency, add a few shakes of RedHot sauce and stir in the light cream. Stir in shredded cheddar until melted and smooth. Remove grits from heat and cover to keep warm until you are ready to assemble the dish with the shrimp and other ingredients.
  4. Season the prepared shrimp with a few shakes of Cajun dry seasoning, and toss to let the flavor meld with the shrimp.
  5. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and brown the andouille sausage bits until they have slightly crispy edges. Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan, tossing to brown them on both sides. Transfer sausage and mushrooms to a bowl.
  6. In the same skillet, again over medium heat, swirl in another tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is shimmering, place shrimp into the pan, one at a time. Allow them to cook, undisturbed, about one minute, then begin turning them, following the same order, to cook the other side.
  7. Add the cooked sausage and mushrooms back to the skillet and give the whole thing a few quick tosses to heat everything through.
  8. Spoon a generous amount of grits onto your serving bowls or plates, top with sausage, shrimp and mushrooms. Sprinkle dish with scallions and serve.

Time for dinner!