A Hamburger Today
Boston: Hungry Mother's Shrimp and Grits
By the time you read this, it'll already be too late. Due to an exceptionally bountiful early season harvest, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Northern Shrimp Section has decided to close Maine shrimp season six weeks early to avoid depleting next year's stock.
That's good news for the oceans and bad news for fans of Hungry Mother's shrimp and grits ($10). The beloved Cambridge restaurant's most popular dish comes and goes with the availability of the tiny, ultra-sweet shellfish, and will come off the menu this week. Everyone's sad about it. Co-owner John Kessen joked (I think) that guests have been known to cry when the dish is not available. Maybe that's why they occasionally bring it back in the off-season with larger Gulf shrimp (which Kessen said he prefers).
Chef Barry Maiden's take on this Lowcountry classic won raves from local Yankees and Southern transplants alike as soon as the charming Kendall Square townhouse opened its doors in 2008. Case in point: When my coworker Marcus, a native North Carolinian, recently organized a group purchase of some Anson Mills grits, I asked him for a good shrimp and grits recipe. After offering his own good advice, he said, "You know what you should do? Ask the folks at Hungry Mother how they make theirs. It's incredible."
So I did. Actually, the to-order execution sounded really quick and easy when the chef described it, but as with so many great restaurant dishes, it's the labor-intensive ingredient prep work—like making your own smoky, spicy tasso ham—that makes the difference. The grits are the easy part: coarse white Anson Mills corn cooked with water, butter, and salt for a good two hours until they're velvety but still retain just a hint of their granular texture. Then for serving, it's a series of rapid flash-in-the-pan movements: The shrimp are seasoned with a housemade dry spice rub that the chefs call "essence" and briefly sautéed with garlic and scallion bottoms in rendered tasso ham fat; shrimp stock, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice are added and reduced to almost nothing; and the heady, ultra-savory sauce is finished with a healthy knob of butter that renders it glossy and rich. The garnishes: crispy strips of tasso ham, perfectly diced cubes of toasted housemade cornbread (worth an order on its own, with the sorghum butter), a tuft of fresh scallion tops, and a drizzle of faintly grassy Vidalia onion oil.
A forkful of this, soaked into the creamy grits, and you'll understand why I ran in to eat it one last time this season—and why people cry when it's gone.