This post is late. I know. I’d hoped to have this up by Mardi Gras, but I fell a little behind in my ambitious scheduling. Please accept my humble apology in the form of this recipe for Bourbon Glazed Cajun Shrimp with Bacon and Cheddar Grits.
Remembering New Orleans
Mardi Gras was yesterday, and Cajun and Creole food has been on my mind for weeks because of it. Is there a word for feeling like you’re homesick for a place you’ve never actually lived? If there is, that’s what I have.
I have an inexplicable affinity for New Orleans. I’ve only had the chance to visit once, but my interest in the city existed long before that. There is something truly special about the French Quarter – the history, the food, the very look of the streets and architecture. I can’t quite explain it. Given my background in comparative religion, perhaps it has something to do with endlessly interesting, multi-layered religious practices of the area.
Or perhaps it’s the jazz – I really do love jazz. I’d never understood music as a spiritual experience for some people, but hearing the Preservation Hall Band play in that very special, historic place, I finally got it.
My fascination was further peaked when I made life-long friends with a scholar who specializes in the study of religion, race, and gender in New Orleans history. We cemented our relationship over our first meeting, when we discussed zombies in popular culture at a party full of religious studies grad students. I’d found a soul sister. While we were studying in Tallahassee together, a few of us piled into a car, drove for five and a half hours, and spent our meager student income on a long weekend exploring the French Quarter. Like the complete nerds that we are, we listened to an audiobook of interesting historic figures of NOLA on the ride, and visited every museum we could afford while eating way too many beignets at Café Du Monde. We drank in the streets, ate delicious seafood, and received personal tours from my friend, who had intimate knowledge of the city and contacts in the area due to her studies. It was by her recommendation that we stood in the long line to get into a show at Preservation Hall, where I had the aforementioned experience. The lines are long, but this is something I would recommend to anyone visiting the city. Bonus: You can totally sip Mint Juleps and Hurricanes on the sidewalk as you wait!
Bourbon Glazed Cajun Shrimp with Bacon & Cheddar Grits
If I’m being completely honest, when I think about New Orleans cuisine, I think Crawfish Etouffee. While I love crawfish, they aren’t exactly convenient to my northeast coast apartment. When I think of southern cooking more broadly, my mind often goes to shrimp and grits, so that’s what I decided to cook up for this occasion. I make no claims that this recipe is traditional to the south or to Louisiana by any means, but it is certainly inspired by the flavors and techniques of Cajun and Creole cooking.
This is a great recipe to keep in your back pocket. None of the ingredients are hard to find, and a lot of the items you likely already keep on hand. I always have bacon and cheddar in my fridge for a variety of recipes, and bagged frozen shrimp are great to keep in the freezer for last-minute meals (Like a stir fry that uses up those aging veggies in your fridge).
If you have these things, a soft spot for bourbon (like me), and can grab some scallions, the rest of the list are shelf-stable pantry ingredients you can always keep around.
I asked a friend the other day, “Who doesn’t like cheesy grits?” Her answer: “Crazy people.” I can’t say I disagree. If you don’t yet know the joy of cheesy grits, I am so sorry. I urge you to rectify this at the soonest possible moment. In my opinion, grits are easier to make than rice on the stovetop, so don’t be intimidated. They are very forgiving. Homemade grits just take some time, but are worth every second of it.
So what is the actual difference between grits and polenta? I hadn’t thought about it until I started pulling together this Cajun Shrimp recipe. Both are made from coarse ground cornmeal, and it can be hard to tell the difference when you start reading labels at the grocery store. According to this article on The Kitchn, the fundamental difference is in the types of corn traditionally used; Italian polenta uses one breed, while American grits use another. At the end of the day though, the difference in your personal cooking is likely going to negligible, so use what you can find or prefer.
For my part, I used Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (Also Known As Polenta) – You can see how the labels can be confusing! White cornmeal would haven been the more traditional route for southern grits, but I already had the yellow in my pantry. I also really love the flavor of this brand, so I went with it.
Just don’t use instant grits. Please no. I can make no guarantees if you go that route with this recipe and I wish you well on your journey.
The thawed and peeled shrimp are cooked in a glaze of bacon fat, Cajun spices, and reduced bourbon. The salty, crumbled bacon and bright, fresh scallions round out the flavors of the mix, which is served right on top of the creamy, cheesy cheddar grits.
Cocktail Pairing: Simple Old Fashioned
I recommend an obligatory bourbon drink – nothing too fancy – to compliment these Cajun Shrimp. I’m including a bonus recipe for a Simple Old Fashioned to get you started.
You already have the bourbon, surely have some variety of sugar, and if you don’t have Angostura bitters on hand then consider this an excellent excuse. It is most certainly a must-have ingredient for your home bar, and I use it often.
Maraschino cherries are optional. If you decide to get some, maybe try for something a little less neon than what you can normally find in the supermarket, if you can. I’m lucky enough to still have homemade cocktail cherries from last summer, but when those run out I turn to one of two options: Luxardo Cherries, or Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherries. The first are amazing, but can be cost prohibitive for some. The second are tasty with quality ingredients, and typically less expensive per ounce (I also like the second for baking purposes!).
In any case, this Old Fashioned recipe is simple and strong. It’s truly a classic cocktail for those bourbon lovers out there.
I hope you enjoy this recipe – let me know your favorite New Orleans memory or Cajun meal in the comments!
Bourbon Glazed Cajun Shrimp with Bacon & Cheddar Grits
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup coarse cornmeal (for grits or polenta)
- 1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 cup aged white cheddar cheese, thickly grated
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 6 ounces bacon (about 6 slices)
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried basil
- 1/4 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- 1 1/2 lb raw shrimp, peeled and cleaned
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black papper
- 4 tsp lemon juice
- 1/2 cup scallion greens, thinly sliced (exclude white parts)
- Bring broth and water to a boil in a medium non-stick sauce pan with a lid. Whisk in the grits - this avoids clumping. Stir in the salt and pepper. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and allow the water to absorb into the cornmeal. Cooking times for grits can vary depending on your type of cornmeal – refer to the instructions on the package if in doubt. Mine took approximately 20 minutes, but some can take as long as 40 minutes. When thickened, remove from heat and stir in the grated cheese and butter. Keep warm.
- As your grits are cooking, get started on the shrimp. First, cook the bacon in your largest skillet until the fat it rendered and just crispy – be careful not to burn. Transfer the cooked bacon to a plate covered in paper towels to absorb the excess grease and keep warm. Crumble or chop the bacon into bite-size pieces once it’s cool enough to handle.
- Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the skillet, and return it to the burner over medium heat. Sprinkle the dried herbs and spices (through the cayenne pepper) into the bacon fat and fry for 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium low and carefully pour the bourbon into the skillet, scraping the pan to loosen up the browned bits and spices. Allow the bourbon glaze to reduce for 3-5 minutes, but be careful not to let it burn.
- Toss the shrimp in the salt and pepper, and then add them to the pan in an even layer. Stir to evenly coat the shrimp in spices and bourbon glaze, and cook until pink on both sides (about 4 minutes). Pour in the lemon juice, and scatter the crumbled bacon and scallions into the skillet, tossing to combine. Cook for an additional 3-5 minutes. Taste, and add additional salt if necessary.
- Divide the grits among your serving bowls, and spoon a generous helping of the shrimp mixture over each. Enjoy immediately with a glass of your favorite bourbon – straight or in a cocktail.
Simple Old Fashioned
- 1 (or 2) tsp sugar, superfine preferred
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 ounces good quality bourbon
- 2 ice cubes
- Cherry or twist of orange peel, for garnish (optional)
- Place one of the ice cubes in a rocks glass and sprinkle the sugar on top. Add the bourbon, and briskly mix the drink with a small stirrer or bar whisk until the sugar dissolves and the glass is nice and cold. Replace the half-melted ice cube with the remaining fresh ice cube. Add the bitters and serve with a cherry or twist of orange peel.