What Do You Serve When You Want People to Know Where You're From?

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Monday night, I invited some lovely people to dinner who are visiting South Carolina from Pennsylvania. I wanted to highlight our local culture and food and, after a busy Monday, I needed something easy! Shrimp and grits seemed like the best choice. Though you can find them almost anywhere in the United States by now, they always taste best at home.

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As I rolled up to the grocery store at 4:45, time was of the essence, because our guests would begin to arrive around 5:30. One day, I will be a person who plans ahead, but Monday was not that day. In this case, at least the shrimp were in the fridge, having been purchased at the all-local farmers' market two days before.

At the store, I realized I didn't know how to shop for shrimp and grits. I usually prepare the dish at the beach, Housewife Sangria in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, with leftover shrimp from a boil the night before, whatever veggies are hanging around the kitchen, a few strips of bacon and assorted bits of leftover cheese for the grits. But to actually buy the ingredients? On purpose? That was a challenge. Dishes of pimiento cheese and pickled green tomatoes distracted my guests while I figured out how to make the shrimp and grits.

It was easy, really. I chopped five or six pieces of bacon and fried them in a pan, sautéing chopped onion, garlic, jalapeño and red and green bell pepper in the resulting grease. There were a few shakes of seasoning salt before I added the tomatoes, cutting a hole in the top of each one and squeezing the innards into the pan before chopping and adding the rest of the fruit. The tomato juice deglazed the pan. I tried to casually eyeball the sauce, because I had no idea how many tomatoes would do the trick. It looked like it could use some more red color, so I squirted a little tomato paste.

When the sauce looked right, I added the shrimp, then worried there weren't enough tomatoes. In a separate pan, I made more tomato sauce to add to the pot. Then there may have been a dash of Worcestershire Sauce and balsamic vinegar, just to taste.

And the grits! Duck stock from the freezer mixed with the water makes a richer pot of grits. The cheese was a blend, including the end of a package of Neufchâtel, a handful of shredded cheddar, a splash of half and half, and a little more unidentified grated cheese from the fridge.

Thankfully, my guests were a chatty bunch, fully capable of entertaining themselves while I tasted and stirred. It isn't classy, but I love having guests in the kitchen while I cook, keeping me company and helping here and there. (One of them peeled all the shrimp, which was awesome!) They asked me about my children, who weren't home yet, and I referred to them as "basketball," "piano" and "choir," because I couldn't remember who was where. Thankfully, my husband rounded them all up and they made it home just in time for dinner.

Did the end result taste or look like a restaurant dish? Probably not. It did show my guests what a home cooked southern meal should be, full of fresh, local ingredients and just enough bacon grease.

What do you serve to out of town guests? Do you cook regional foods or do your own thing?

(Image credits: Anne Postic)

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