Shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, crab cakes and oyster pie are only a sample of the abundant dishes made from seafood that characterize the South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine as a “cuisine of the water.”
The geography of the Lowcountry plays a crucial role in shaping its culinary landscape and social character. Defined by water, the region’s extensive wetlands offer a wealth of seafood. Fishing, shrimping, crabbing and oystering provide important sources of food and income for many South Carolinians.
Fish Frys and Festivals
Inland waterways and the ocean provide limitless opportunities to socialize, throw parties and eat seafood. Fish frys, oyster roasts, seafood social clubs, Lowcountry boils and crabbing parties are some of the most popular outdoor entertainments. Throughout the Lowcountry seafood celebrations abound such as the McClellanville’s Lowcountry Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet, or the annual Hilton Head Island Seafood Fest.
The shrimp trawler, with its sprawling nets and hovering seagulls, is a familiar icon. Historians share stories about the colorful Mosquito Fleet — slaves and freedmen who began dominating the fishing industry in the early 19th century. Each day at early tide they sailed a hodgepodge of small wooden fishing boats through Charleston waters to fish offshore. Being superstitious, many boats were painted “haint blue,” thought to be a mystical color that would repel “haints” or ghosts, in deep waters. The fishermen returned at twilight, sailing windward, loaded with their catch. City market vendors and pushcart peddlers were soon selling skipjack, whiting, trout, croaker (inshore fish) and porgy, blackfish and grunts (offshore fish), to mention a few. The fishermen used methods passed down by their African ancestors like net casting, basket traps and fishing lines made of seagrass. These skills continue to influence fishing and boat building along coastal waterways.
Lowcountry Shrimp Dishes
If you want to draw a crowd at a party, bring on the shrimp! The season for large white shrimp, which are the offspring of spring roe shrimp, runs August through October — sometimes into January. The quintessential Lowcountry dish is shrimp and grits, with a long tradition of being the breakfast of convenience for shrimp boat crews. Now, it’s comfort food for everyone and satisfying anytime of day. The “receipt” for Breakfast Shrimp in Charleston Receipts (Charleston Junior League, 1950) calls for hominy, the old Charleston name for grits, and small, sweet, brown creek shrimp purchased from street peddlers. For an easy downhome version sautée cleaned, white fresh coastal shrimp quickly in ample butter, season with salt and pepper, then spoon shrimp over warm, cooked stone-ground grits, preferably made with a little sharp cheddar and cream. The dish will only be as good as the ingredients, so use the best. Additional interpretations of shrimp and grits can be found in the recipe section.
Beaufort shrimper Richard Gay created Frogmore Stew as a way to feed his local National Guard unit and use up Armory leftovers: shrimp, corn, sausage and potatoes. Served communal-style, the hearty meal was a hit, and Beaufort Stew was born. He changed the name to Frogmore Stew to honor Frogmore, his community on St. Helena Island. Local restaurants adopted the dish (also known as a Lowcountry boil) and its popularity spread through the nation. Enterprising Gullah cooks have long produced variations of seafood pots over wood-burning fires. Awendaw Stew is a one-pot meal that contains a bounty of crab, shrimp, oysters and clams.
Know Your Seafood Suppliers
The Southern Shrimp Alliance, which represents shrimpers from eight states including South Carolina, says United States shrimpers compete against cheaper, unfairly traded imported shrimp. In recent months, the FDA has increasingly refused shrimp entry into the United States for veterinary drug residues and bacterial contamination, yet only 1 percent of imported shrimp is tested. Farm-raised Asian and South American shrimp “dumped” into the U.S. market account for more than 85 percent of the shrimp eaten in this country.
Shop carefully for ethical, sustainable seafood options. Become an informed consumer and support the local fishing industry. Authentic wild American shrimp from the southeastern United States have been harvested since the 1800s. Firm and plump, they have a mild, fresh, ocean breeze aroma (without ammonia) and a sweet, organic flavor, low in iodine. Purchase shrimp marketed under the Wild American Shrimp, Inc. certification program or under the designation Wild Caught Gulf Shrimp. It is easier now to identify fresh, local seafood when sellers display “Certified SC Grown” logos — a joint initiative of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the S.C. Seafood Alliance and the S.C. Department of Agriculture.
Much of the beautifully arranged “fresh” seafood displayed in supermarket cases has been previously frozen. Thanks to newer technologies like flash freezing at sea, frozen fish and seafood can be a good choice, retaining peak freshness, flavor and nutrition.
Responsibly sourced seafood is available from area stores such as Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Fresh Market. Federal regulations (COOL) require seafood retailers to provide customers with a notice of the country of origin for shrimp and other shellfish, and whether wild-caught or farm-raised.
A stellar source for wild-harvested seafood is seafood purveyor Jeff Dowdy, The Shrimp Guy, designated as an official seller of “Certified SC Grown” seafood by The S.C. Department of Agriculture. His motto is, “Go Wild, Go Local or Go Without!” Jeff sells a rotating variety of seafood at several Midlands farmers’ markets: e.g., fresh Lowcountry shrimp, live crabs, oysters, trout, flounder and occasionally, live Maine lobsters. The shrimp and grits photo in this article features shrimp from The Shrimp Guy.
Tomato Shrimp and Grits
In Winston-Salem in the 1980s, the late Chef Bill Neal orchestrated the debut of shrimp and grits at his restaurant Crook’s Corner as an elegant dish that could be showcased beyond breakfast. Success was assured when Craig Claiborne mentioned the shrimp dish in The New York Times. Shrimp sizes (“large” or “extra large”) aren’t standardized. They are sold by the number it requires to make up one pound; the smaller the number, the larger the shrimp will be. A fairly standard size is a 21 to 25 count — large in most markets. Smaller shrimp with a 26/30 count would work for this dish too. Stoneground white and yellow grits have nuanced favor differences that are so subtle they are interchangeable.
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled, cleaned
3 cups shrimp stock (shrimp shells simmered in 3 cups water with bouquet garni, 1 sliced shallot, peppercorns, a little dry white wine and parsley sprigs; strain.) OR chicken broth
1 recipe Cheese Grits with yellow grits (see Carolina Grits)
2 pieces crisp bacon, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup small diced green bell pepper
1/4 cup small diced celery
2 large shallots, minced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 large peeled, chopped tomato
2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Tabasco Sauce, to taste
2 rounded tablespoons cornstarch mixed in 3 tablespoons stock or broth
2 sliced green onions
Peel shrimp and refrigerate, reserving shells. Prepare shrimp stock, Cheese Grits and bacon. Gather remaining ingredients. In a medium saucepan, heat 1/2 of the oil and butter; cook vegetables until soft. Add 2 cups stock, tomato, tomato paste, seasonings and Tabasco. Simmer 3 minutes while sautéeing shrimp in remaining oil and butter. Add cornstarch mixture to stock; boil 1 minute to thicken. Adjust sauce flavor or thickness if desired. Add shrimp and bacon. Spoon over grits; garnish with green onion. Serves four.
The South is often referred to as the “grits belt.” Grits have been designated as South Carolina’s state food. Hominy grits are produced from dried processed corn kernels stone-ground into fine, medium and coarse textures. Fresh ground heirloom grits have a rich, earthy corn flavor not found in grocery store varieties. Refer to package directions when cooking different brands; occasionally one may need rinsing to separate the grits from the chaff (outer husk). Grits are versatile: serve as a breakfast side dish or embellish with savoy toppings such as sautéed shrimp, fried catfish or spicy grilled fish fillets. Store stone-ground grits in the freezer to preserve freshness.
1 cup stone-ground grits (yellow or white)
4 cups water, more as needed
1 cup cream, half-in-half or milk
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil. Whisk in the grits slowly to prevent lumping. Reduce heat to low; simmer 30 minutes or until grits reach a desired consistency. Stir often to prevent scorching. Stir in cream. When almost done, stir in salt and butter. Serve warm.
Variation: Cheese Grits
Cook grits using 2 cups water and 2 cups chicken broth. Continue cooking as directed then stir in 3/4 to 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese and 1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.
BLT Shrimp and Grits
Charleston is the mecca for shrimp and grits. It was inevitable that Nathalie Dupree, who is the city’s “queen of the Southern kitchen,” and Marion Sullivan would write Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp & Grits — the beau idéal cookbook on the subject. They believe the “familiar flavor combo” in this recipe makes it the ultimate comfort food. Nathalie advises, “Some freshly milled grits are ground more finely and cook more quickly than stone-ground grits, but most grits can be ground finer in a food processor.”
She doesn’t use instant grits and keeps cooked grits in the freezer for “desperation meals.”
1 cup uncooked grits (4 cups cooked)
Water and half-and-half or milk
4 tablespoons butter
4 strips bacon, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 pound small raw shrimp, peeled
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 thinly sliced scallions, white and green parts separated
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 1/2 cups half-and-half or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large arugula leaves, washed
Cook grits according to package directions, using water and half-and-half. Add the butter to the hot grits. Cook the bacon in a heavy bottomed frying pan until crisp, 5 to 10 minutes, stirring as needed. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add the shrimp, garlic and white parts of the scallion to the bacon grease. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turn pink. Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and set aside. Sprinkle the flour into the pan and stir until well blended. Add the tomatoes and half-and-half and stir until well blended. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the gravy thickens slightly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the gravy over the grits and sprinkle the shrimp, bacon and green parts of the scallions over the top. Garnish with arugula. Serves four.
Congaree Shrimp and Grits
Ken DuBard and Lawence Burwell of Congaree Milling Company sent this tasty recipe. Ken shared several useful recipe options: Use bacon drippings for the fat; add some cooked, drained Andouille sausage pieces to the sauce; add canned chipotle peppers for a spicy, smoky taste; and recycle the shrimp shells for shrimp stock.
1 cup cooked grits (Visit the Mill website for recipe; TheCongareeMillingCompany.com)
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 small red pepper, diced
1 to 2 sticks celery, diced
1/2 shredded carrot
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
About 3 to 4 cups hot fish stock, chicken stock or water, as needed
Seasonings: Old Bay, salt and ground black pepper
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled
Heat oil in a medium saucepan; cook vegetables until soft. Sprinkle with salt. On low heat, stir in flour then cook one minute. Add stock, still stirring, and cook until mixture thickens into a sauce. Simmer on extra low heat 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If sauce is too thick, thin with more liquid. Add seasonings to taste. Add shrimp and cook 2 or 3 minutes until they turn pink. Spoon over bowls of grits and enjoy! Serves four.
In her autobiographical cookbook Vibration Cooking, Lowcountry native Dr. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor uses a loose, spontaneous recipe style. She writes, “I never measure or weigh … amounts are approximate … I just do it by vibration.” Her method seems tailor-made for this one-pot seafood feast — a Southern cousin to the famous New England seafood boil. Ingredients and amounts can be varied to taste. Some cooks add live blue crabs or stone crab claws. You can add tiny heirloom new potatoes (like the fingerling) or omit them entirely. Try adding a large, chopped onion, bell pepper, celery or 1/2 pound mushrooms. The recipe is perfect for outdoor entertaining; cleanup is a breeze. Serve with crisp coleslaw and cold beer. Some folks like to pour a few bottles of beer into the stockpot. The tasty broth could be strained and used in soups or stews.
1 1/2 gallons water (to cover food)
1/2 cup shrimp boil seasoning like Old Bay
1 1/4 pound mixed fingerling and tiny new potatoes
6 ears fresh corn, shucked, broken into thirds (or frozen corn cobettes)
2 (13-ounce) packages Polish Kielbasa, cut in 2-inch pieces (Hillshire Farm)
About 2 1/2 pounds large to extra-large shrimp, unpeeled
Condiments: Butter for corn, cocktail sauce, lemon wedges, hot sauce, sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring water and seasoning to a rolling boil in a 3 gallon stockpot. Add potatoes, corn and sausage; cook until potatoes and corn are tender, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp; press under liquid. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes, but don’t overcook. Turn off heat. With a large slotted spoon, place ingredients on large serving platters for diners to help themselves. Pass the condiments. The food can be served outdoors placed directly on newspaper-lined picnic tables — using the Beaufort Gazette is optional! Serves six. Recipe adapted from Susan Slack’s recipe in Simply Seafood magazine.
Carolina Jumbo Lump Crabcakes
This star recipe was shared by Chef Bruce A. Sacino, former executive chef at the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion. He created it for a luncheon honoring the Palmetto Cabinet, an organization of the spouses of South Carolina’s present and past Constitutional Officers. It was one of the mansion’s most requested recipes. Bruce serves them with lobster sauce, roasted red pepper beurre blanc, roasted red pepper mayonnaise, cocktail sauce and remoulade sauce. Make your favorite and dig in!
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, well picked over for shells
1/2 cup roasted Red Pepper Purée (recipe included)
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup diced green onions
1/4 cup top-quality brand mayonnaise
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine crabmeat, pepper purée, breadcrumbs, green onion, mayonnaise, mustard and cayenne. Gently stir to thoroughly mix. Shape into 8-inch cakes about 1 1/2-inches thick. Heat oil in a large, heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Cook crab cakes until well browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn them over then place the skillet into the hot oven 6 to 8 minutes to heat through. Serve warm with a sauce of choice. Serves four.
Red Pepper Purée
Place 3 or 4 red bell peppers over the medium-high flame of a gas range or on a hot barbecue grill. Turn occasionally with tongs until blackened on all sides. Enclose peppers in a brown paper bag to cool. Peel off skins and remove seeds. Purée the pulp in a food processor until smooth.
Lowcountry Shrimp Boil — Gullah Style
This flavorful method for cooking shrimp comes from Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea (Evening Post Publishing Company, Charleston), a cookbook by popular Charleston caterer Charlotte Jenkin. Charlotte uses only a small amount of water and explains, “Basically, you are steaming the shrimp … Even if you don’t use Gullah seasoning this is the way you should cook them.”
1 cup water
1/2 cup white wine
4 tablespoons Gullah Seafood Seasoning (recipe included)
1 bay leaf
2 pounds large (21/25 count) unpeeled shrimp
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Place the water, wine, Gullah Seafood Seasoning and bay leaf in a large heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil. Add the red pepper flakes. Bring back to a boil. Add the shrimp and simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink and are firm to the touch. Adjust seasonings to your taste. You can serve with cocktail sauce. Garnish with lemon.
Gullah Seafood Seasoning
Charlotte uses this blend for shrimp and as an all-purpose seasoning.
1/4 cup EACH granulated garlic, granulated onion, salt, black pepper and celery salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground dry mustard
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground bay leaf
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons EACH ground ginger, ground allspice and ground cardamom
1 teaspoon EACH ground cloves and ground mace
Combine ingredients. Store in a tightly closed container. Keep three months in a dark cool place or in the freezer for up to a year.
Food Styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP