This is the second recipe I’ve made from what has turned out to be my favorite cookbook published this year, Momofuku by David Chang. The dish, shrimp and grits, was a milestone for Chang. As he describes it:
…it was with this dish that I decided — or accepted — that if we reached past “tradition” to create the truest and best version of a dish for our own palates, then what we were doing wasn’t bullshit. Momofuku was going pretty strong at this point, but this was the dish that allowed us — or me, certainly — to really look outward and onward.
Quite a bit of emotional weight for a bowlful of grits, but I plunged in. As with many of Chang’s recipes, there are simple but essential do-ahead steps — three for this recipe: soaking the grits, making slow-poached eggs, and preparing either ramen broth or bacon dashi. Given that the ramen broth is a substantial undertaking of its own, I opted for the dashi. But first, the grits. As the recipe states: “Assuming you have the foresight to do so, combine the water (two cups) and grits (two cups) and let the grits soak overnight in the pot you’ll cook them in.” I soaked the grits overnight.
Dashi, a basic ingredent in many Japanese prepartions, is usually made with konbu — dried kelp — and katsuobushi — dried, smoked bonito flakes. Chang substitutes the katsuobushi with high-quality smoky bacon. I started with two three-by-six-inch pieces of konbu, and a half pound of bacon cut into quarters. (The bacon was sliced by my prep cook, He Who Will Not be Ignored.)
I rinsed the konbu and added it to eight cups of water. I brought the pot to a simmer over medium heat, then turned off the heat and let it steep for ten minutes. The konbu had completely rehydrated into large, floppy sheets.
I discarded the konbu, added the bacon, brought the pot to a boil, then reduced to a simmer for thirty minutes.
I strained and discarded the bacon (Discarded bacon? Is it possible to combine those words in common English usage?), chilled the broth, and reserved the solidified bacon fat. I kept two cups of the dashi in the fridge, and froze the remaining quart for future use.
While the dashi cooled, I set up my ghetto sous-vide rig again (first used here), and slow-poached six eggs at 145°F for 45 minutes.
I chilled the eggs in ice water until needed.
Turning my attention to the shrimp and grits, I assembled my ingredients:a half pound of bacon cut into batons, two cups of bacon dashi, two cup of soaked and drained grits, two tablespoons of canola oil, two tablespoons of soy sauce, a stick of butter cut into pieces, a half cup of chopped scallions, and a pound of peeled and deveined U-20 shrimp.
I added the grits to the dashi, brought them to a simmer over medium-high heat, and stirred constantly for five minutes.
Here’s where I ran into a possible error in the recipe. If I hadn’t soaked the grits, I would have added them slowly to the dashi and two additional cups of water. The pre-soaked grits should have eliminated the need for the water, but they stiffened up too quickly. I may not know that much about cooking grits, but I do know my way around a polenta, so I gradually added two cups of water from my electric kettle to get the grits to the desired creamy consistency. I also added the soy sauce, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.
And this is where I encountered my second problem. The recipe specifically calls for usukuchi, or light say sauce. All I had was traditional dark soy. Although it had no bearing on the flavor of the grits, it did change the color from dark gold to beige, as you will see. With the grits at the proper consistency, I stired in the butter, and set the covered pot aside.
I cooked the bacon in a cast iron pan over medium heat until it was crispy.
While the bacon cooked, I added the oil and a pinch of salt to the shrimp and mixed to coat. I removed the bacon, reserved the fat, wiped the pan clean, and set it over high heat. I added the shrimp, pressing down with a spatula, and seared them for two minutes, then turned them and seared for an additional minute.
I set the shrimp aside, then took three of the eggs out of the fridge and warmed them under hot running tap water. I put a big helping of grits in each bowl, arranged the shrimp, bacon, and scallions in separate piles, then cracked an egg into the center of each.
This dish invites you to play with all of the possible flavor combinations: shrimp and bacon, shrimp and egg, bacon and egg, bacon and grits, etc., but a mouthful of all five components just knocks you flat with tastes and textures. You can just make out the vegetal note from the dashi, which is what instantly differentiates this dish from its Southern version. As He Who Will Not Be Ignored noted – taking pride in what he helped cook: “This is awesome! From now on I always want bacon with my shrimp!”
Bacon: North Country Smokehouse
Konbu, scallions: Reliable Market
Grits: Whole Foods