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North of Dixie Pseudo Tasso Ham and grits. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

EAT MY WORDS: Simple-to-prep dish hams up Southern flavors for dinner party

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Last weekend, my lady friend and I (my wife told me the only way I’m allowed to write about her is if I refer to her as my “lady friend”) had friends over for dinner. My original theme idea — a take on the Swedish Midsommar celebration — was vetoed. Unable to come up with anything more specific than “something with pork chops,” we looked to cookbooks and Google for inspiration.

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At some point in our search, my lady friend mentioned shrimp and grits. Lights flashed and buzzers went off in my head. The shrimp and spicy bright flavors hint at the impending summer while the warm, cheesy comfort of grits reminds us we’re probably going to see our share of rainy, 51-degree days.

Shrimp and grits got its start (like so many delicious seafood recipes) as a simple fisherman’s dish in the South Carolina Low Country. It elevated to iconic status in the mid-’80s and, soon, every Southern chef worth their kosher salt had their own version.

I decided to make a version based on a recipe originally published in the February 2000 issue of Gourmet. I had previously adapted my own version as a chef at a small restaurant and, after a slow start, it developed a loyal and enthusiastic following. I hoped my dinner guests would share the same enthusiasm.

While the preparation of this dish is fairly simple, sourcing some of the ingredients can be difficult. Tasso ham is a southern Louisiana specialty and is impossible to find in our region. We get around that by rubbing our regular smoked Minnesota ham with a Tasso-style seasoning blend. Andouille sausage is fairly common in supermarkets, just make sure to pick one up with plenty of spice to offset the creamy grits.

Real, old-fashioned stone- ground grits can be hard to come by in Duluth. After scouring every supermarket, high-end grocer and mammoth discount store we could think of, we ended up buying the quick five-minute grits. Not exactly what I wanted, but it would do.

As I began to prepare the meal —peeling and deveining the shrimp, rubbing the ham, halving the tomatoes — I started to get the pre-meal jitters. Would my guests like the dish, would I overcook the shrimp, would they notice that the grits weren’t stone ground?

As I pondered these weighty issues, I finished sautéing the topping, waiting for the addition of the grape tomatoes. The original recipe had called for peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, but I found them a little boring, so I decided to use something that would assert itself a little more. Halved grape tomatoes, added at the last minute, held their moisture until the unsuspecting diner bit into them and was hit with a burst of bright, juicy goodness.

As I was finishing the grits, the guests began to arrive and my lady friend poured them spiked Arnold Palmers. They brought their bubbly exuberance, polished wit and wine, lots of wine. Sitting down to dinner, I realized that this friendship and sharing was really the point, not the grits authenticity. And, judging by the “mmms” and “yums” and the empty grit pot at the end of the meal, I don’t think my guests cared too much about authenticity either.

Bruce Wallis-chef, educator and food nerd from Duluth MN. Contact me at brucewallis16@gmail.com.

Grits 4 cups water

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup old-fashioned stone-ground grits

¼ cup Half & Half

⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese

⅓ cup grated cheddar cheese

TOPPING ¾ pound andouille sausage, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

4 ounces Tasso ham, cut into ¼-inch julienne strips

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

20 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, if desired

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved

¼ cup sliced scallion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon all spice

¼ cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring water, salt and butter to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan. Whisk in grits and cook at a bare simmer, covered, stirring frequently, until grits are tender and thick, about 1 hour. Stir in Half & Half and cheeses. Continue stirring until cheese is melted and smooth. Remove from heat. Make topping 10 minutes before grits are done. Cook Andouille sausage and ham with half tablespoon of butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until sausage begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer andouille and ham to a plate with a slotted spoon. Add 1 tablespoon butter to skillet and heat until foam subsides. Cook shrimp, turning, until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Stir in andouille, ham, remaining butter and remaining ingredients except salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and taking care not to break up grape tomatoes until heated through, then season with salt and pepper. Serve topping over grits.

North of Dixie Pseudo Tasso Ham While true Tasso ham is flavored as much by the cure as by the rub, here’s a way to get a little taste of New Orleans using a standard smoked ham. This is also good in an omelet or stirred into scrambled eggs, in macaroni and cheese, potato soup, the list goes on.

2 lbs. smoked ham, sliced in ¼-inch slices

½ tablespoon ground mace

½ tablespoon garlic powder

½ tablespoon onion powder

½ tablespoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon dried sage

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon honey

½ tablespoon warm water

Mix all spices together with honey and water. Coat all slices of ham with seasoning mixture, using all of the mixture. Place in a glass or plastic container, cover tightly and refrigerate for at least one hour and as long as 8 hours. Julienne or dice and use in your favorite ham recipes.

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