In his two Savannah-centric cookbooks, food historian and gourmet guru Damon Lee Fowler showcases our shore’s signature shellfish.
One hot, rainy late-June afternoon back in 2007—the kind that makes Savannah’s pavements steam and its air take on the heavy, sticky quality that has earned summers here the nickname “hot mayonnaise season”—I found myself in the wide, double drawing room of the handsome Greek Revival Battersby-Hartridge House. Unlike the air outside, the room, with its tall, generous windows, lofty ceilings and enormous antique mirrors, was airy and cool.
I was gathering stories and recipes for The Savannah Cookbook (Gibbs-Smith, 2008) and had come to visit Connie Hartridge, mistress of this historic mansion, which had been in her family for at least four generations. Surrounded by family portraits and furnishings, I felt almost as if the past had overtaken us and pulled us backward into it.
Part of that feeling was no doubt because of the stacks of old books scattered across the coffee table, their covers frayed and stained, their pages browned and crumbling with age, their bindings loose and often missing. Unlike the polished family silver and old mahogany furniture, they’d been used, and used hard.
And yet, those books were treasures equal to the most carefully tended antique in the room. They were the family manuscript cookbooks, whose faded, tattered pages preserve a part of Savannah that has almost been forgotten: a cuisine that could only happen when Old World elegance collided with marshes and wilting humidity. It was a cuisine that had, unlike the park-like squares and architecture of this old city, been nearly lost to the march of progress and the whim of fashion.
Connie held out a drab little cloth-bound notebook with both hands.
“This was my grandmother’s.”
I took hold of it carefully and gently opened it on my lap. Its yellowed pages were covered with faded old-fashioned handwriting—writing that spoke of another era, when penmanship was important and hearts were not considered proper punctuation.
The recipes were old-fashioned and simple, and yet they could in no way be called naïve or simplistic, for behind their directness was a palpable respect for subtlety and balance, a rare understanding of flavor that is largely lost on us today.
“Oh, my, listen to this,” we’d exclaim to one another, taking turns reading them aloud, until we came to a recipe that stopped us both short.
It was exquisitely effortless—just a handful of ingredients—yet so vivid and evocative that we could almost taste it: large, juicy creek shrimp, tossed in copious quantities of butter and a whisper of garlic until they were just curled and pink, then finished with sherry and a handful of freshly chopped parsley.
“Yes,” she said softly, touching the page. “I remember that . . .”
Her eyes got the far-away, hungry look of a young girl, and I knew she was back in another time, sitting at a table laid with crisp linen and glistening silver, her neck chafing from the starched collar of a Sunday frock and her feet, normally bare and sand-crusted, scrubbed and imprisoned in stockings and patent leather.
As the ice settled in our glasses, we sighed and turned the page.
from the household notebook of Elizabeth Malone Smart
I have added nothing to this but the salt and cayenne pepper that Connie’s grandmother no doubt took for granted.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
48 large shrimp (about 1½ pounds), peeled
Salt and ground cayenne pepper
½ cup dry sherry
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 cups prepared steamed rice
Put the garlic and butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat and cook until the garlic is golden, about two minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the shrimp and sauté, tossing frequently, until curled and pink, about three minutes. Season well with salt and cayenne, both to taste (Savannah’s inlet brown shrimp often don’t need added salt), and remove them with a slotted spoon to a warm platter.
Add the sherry and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan, and let it boil half a minute. Stir in the parsley and pour it over the shrimp. Serve at once, over rice or with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the sauce.
A Crustacean for Every Occasion
Ever since that day in Connie’s drawing room, I’ve served her grandmother’s dish to Savannahians and visitors alike, and it’s always met with amazement at how deliciously complex such a simple dish can taste. The secret is just as simple: when a recipe is this forthright, its success depends entirely on the quality of its ingredients—in this case, the shrimp. I’ve taught this dish all over the Southeast and can tell you that without our fresh, seasonal local shrimp, it’s never quite as good.
Because the succulent shellfish are so abundant in our waters, we Savannahians sometimes take our shrimp for granted—using them prodigally throughout their season and forgetting how rare and special they are elsewhere. We shouldn’t.
The lovely thing about them is that they are so easy and quick to prepare, and they always make a fabulous impression, whether peeled and eaten off a paper plate at a Lowcountry boil or off of fine china in one of our historic dining rooms.
Our chefs understand this so well; no other local ingredient is used by them as frequently or enthusiastically. When I was gathering recipes for my newest cookbook, A Savannah Chef’s Table, we might easily have called it the Savannah Chef’s Shrimp Cookbook: everyone had a shrimp dish that they wanted to share. It was almost a case of “so many shrimp, so little time.”
The following recipes are excerpted from the book A Savannah Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from This Historic City, by Damon Lee Fowler (Globe Pequot Press, 2013).
Shrimp & Grits
from Alligator Soul
“When you get things directly from the (source),” Alligator Soul chef Chris DiNello points out, “you know where it came from, what’s in it, and how fresh it really is. I keep the preparation basic and clean—then introduce those one or two unexpected flavor components that get your attention.”
4 cups chicken stock or broth (or water)
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 pound unsalted European-style butter
1 cup Georgia stone-ground grits
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
1 cup diced tasso ham
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
Reggiano, plus more for garnish (optional)
6 ounces grated mild to medium aged
cheddar, plus more for garnish (optional)
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot or yellow onion
1–2 pounds large, fresh Georgia wild-
caught shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
Creole spice blend, to taste
1 lemon wedge
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
Put the chicken stock, cream and 4 tablespoons of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Whisk in the grits and season with salt and pepper. Bring the grits to a simmer, whisking constantly to avoid burning and sticking on the bottom, until it begins to thicken. Add the ham, stir well, and cook about 45 to 50 minutes, stirring often, until the grits are tender and thick. Stir in both cheeses and check the seasoning.
To prepare the shrimp: Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and shallots and sweat briefly. Add the shrimp and sauté until they are almost cooked through, about two to three minutes, then add the minced garlic. Toss until fragrant, and deglaze with the wine. Add a good pinch of Creole spice to taste, a splash of lemon juice and the parsley or cilantro. Off the heat, swirl in the remaining butter until it is barely melted and the sauce is thick.
To serve, divide the grits among four heated rimmed soup plates. Spoon the shrimp and butter sauce over them and sprinkle with the green onions and, if desired, a little more of the two cheeses.
Sautéed Georgia Shrimp with Carolina Gold Risotto and Seasonal Vegetables
from Cha Bella
Nothing better illustrates the Cha Bella philosophy of using fresh, local ingredients than this handsome risotto. Instead of the fat, medium-grained rice traditionally used for this dish, it’s made with locally grown Carolina Gold, a delicately nutty long-grain rice that once made the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry wealthy. Here it’s topped with local Georgia white shrimp and a seasonal selection of vegetables.
For the risotto:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1½ cups Carolina Gold rice (or use Arborio)
1 bay leaf
1 cup dry white wine
About 4 cups hot vegetable stock
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
For the sautéed shrimp in white wine and tarragon sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
24–28 large Georgia white shrimp, peeled and
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into
2- to 3-inch lengths
1/2 cup dry white wine
Lemon juice, to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and freshly milled black pepper, to taste
4–6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Make the risotto: Put the olive oil and onion in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Sweat the onion, stirring occasionally, until softened, and then stir in the rice. Slightly toast the rice, stirring slowly and carefully to prevent it from sticking. Add the bay leaf and deglaze with the wine, stirring to loosen the rice and onions. Cover the rice with a ladleful of vegetable stock and stir continuously until the rice absorbs all the stock. Repeat with more stock until the rice is al dente and creamy. It should be creamy but not runny. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmigiano and all the butter, reserving the remaining Parmigiano for garnish. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Keep warm but do not cover.
Make the shrimp: Heat the oil and garlic in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. When it is sizzling hot, add the shrimp and sauté until pink and just cooked through. Remove from the pan and add the tomatoes and asparagus. Sauté until the asparagus is crisp tender. Add them to the shrimp and toss.
To plate, divide the risotto among four heated dinner plates and arrange the shrimp and vegetables over the top. Return the sauté pan to medium-high heat and pour in the wine. Deglaze the pan, stirring and scraping the bottom, add lemon juice to taste, and stir in the tarragon. Let it boil until the wine is reduced by half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in butter a few bits at a time until the sauce is thickened. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and risotto, sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano, and serve immediately.
Captain Crab’s Lowcountry Boil
from The Crab Shack
Boiled crab, spiked with Captain Jack’s proprietary spice blend, is obviously still a mainstay of The Crab Shack menu, but equally popular is this traditional Lowcountry dish of shrimp poached with potatoes, corn, onions, and spicy smoked sausage. Found throughout the region, from Frogmore, S.C., where it is believed to have been created, all the way down to the coast of northern Florida and up to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it varies a little from cook to cook, but the primary elements are always the same. Here is The Crab Shack’s signature version.
1/2 cup seafood seasoning (The Crab Shack recommends Captain Crab’s Secret Spice)
1/4 cup salt
4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 pounds new potatoes
2 pounds smoked sausage links, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ears corn, shucked and cut into 3-inch pieces
1/2 onion, cut into thin slices (optional)
3 pounds fresh shrimp, tails on
2–3 lemons, each cut into 8 wedges
Seafood cocktail sauce
Put 8 quarts water into a 16-quart pot and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the Captain Crab’s Secret Spice, salt, pepper and vinegar. Add the new potatoes and cook for five minutes. Add the sausage, corn and onion, if using, bring it back to a simmer, and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the shrimp, cover and let it sit for two minutes. The residual heat will be enough to cook the shrimp. They will float to the top, and their shells will begin to separate from the meat.
Drain, sprinkle everything with additional seafood spice to taste, and serve with lemon wedges, cocktail sauce and plenty of paper towels.