The South really is the Italy of America. The cuisines of both are deeply regional and close to the farm. They share ingredients and a love for playing out life, the best and the worst of it, at the table. Those similarities weren’t on Jacques Larson’s mind when he first moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1996. He wasn’t cooking Italian food then, and he admits he knew little of Lowcountry foodways. So he spent his early years as a sous chef at Peninsula Grill, one of the first Charleston restaurants to specialize in Lowcountry cuisine, mastering dishes that define the region, such as hoppin’ John and she-crab soup.
Larson’s dedication to Italian food began when he decamped to Greensboro, North Carolina, to run Basil’s Trattoria and Wine Bar. From there, his path was set. He returned to Charleston in 2002, cooked for a few more years to great acclaim, and then left again to study in Mario Batali’s New York kitchens and in Italy’s Piedmont region. Back in the Lowcountry, his ability to blend both worlds blossomed at Wild Olive Cucina Italiana, his restaurant set among the farms of Johns Island. In 2014, he opened a second restaurant, the Obstinate Daughter, on nearby Sullivan’s Island.
One of his signature hybrids is a variation on shrimp and grits. Traditionally the dish, which comes from the Gullah Geechee culture, includes shrimp in a sauce enriched with cream and bacon or sausage, enlivened with tomato, and then draped over grits. Larson’s rustic Italian interpretation begins with ’Nduja, a spicy spreadable salami. If you can’t find it at a specialty shop, you can substitute fresh chorizo or even andouille. The key is heat. Larson marries blistered cherry tomatoes with white wine, fresh spinach, and butter. The star, of course, is big Carolina shrimp. “One of the coast’s greatest resources,” he says.
All of this is spooned over crispy-fried slices of polenta, grits’ Italian cousin. Either will work in this dish, but coarse-ground yellow polenta holds together better when fried. That the two ingredients can swap places, like many Southern and Italian staples, is the beauty of being a cook in the Lowcountry, Larson says. Just don’t expect him to apologize to purists who say his dish doesn’t much resemble traditional shrimp and grits. “Those are good, too,” he says, “but they need to taste this.”
Shrimp with Fried Polenta Cakes
1 pint (about 2 cups) cherry tomatoes
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 lb. ‘Nduja or spicy fresh sausage, such as chorizo or andouille
1 cup red onion, sliced into petals
2 cups white wine
Black pepper, to taste
4 cups packed baby spinach
1 lb. fresh wild Atlantic shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 oz. butter, chilled and diced
Salt, to taste
8 fried polenta cakes (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Toss tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a shallow ovenproof dish that can hold the tomatoes in a single layer. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes, or until tomatoes collapse and begin to caramelize. (This can be done a day ahead. Bring tomatoes to room temperature before using.)
Heat a large shallow sauté pan over medium-high and add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, meat, and onions, breaking up the mixture with the edge of a spoon if necessary. Sauté until onions soften and meat is well browned, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the white wine and a couple of grinds of black pepper; bring to a boil and cook until it is reduced by almost half. Stir in the roasted tomatoes, spinach, and shrimp, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until shrimp is just cooked through. Add butter and stir to make the sauce glossy. Salt as needed.
Spoon mixture over polenta cakes and serve immediately.
Fried Polenta Cakes
3 cups water
1½ tsp. kosher salt
¾ cup polenta (or grits)
Canola oil, for frying
Combine water and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in polenta, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring frequently and adding water if needed to keep the consistency thick but easy to stir. Pour polenta into a lightly oiled loaf pan and refrigerate until cold and hard, about 2 hours or overnight.
When polenta has cooled, invert the pan onto a cutting board and slice the polenta into 8 even pieces. To fry, use a countertop deep fryer or add at least 3 inches of oil to a heavy saucepan and heat to 350ºF. Fry cakes 2 or 3 at a time until they are golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate and keep warm until ready to serve.