Have you ever had a totally perfect experience? Whether an elaborate occasion, or spontaneous get-together with friends, a day of unexpected discoveries on vacation, or a simple walk in a beautiful snowfall, it’s a time when all of the components fall together and are absolutely right. Those kinds of experiences are rare treasures, remembered forever. We had an Easter like that once. I can’t take any credit. Our perfect Easter was the idea of my husband, Peter, and his effort made it happen. Peter has always had a wonderful penchant for surprise celebrations. The first year we were married, he had a surprise party for my birthday. For a week he got up in the middle of the night and cooked, storing things in our neighbor’s fridge. He made everything except the cake, which he persuaded my grandmother to bake and send on a bus. By party time he was so exhausted that he fell asleep after drinking one glass of punch. Our friends and I sadly put him to bed and ate without him. He planned elaborate treasure hunts and junior detective adventures for our children’s birthdays. One year for our anniversary Peter decorated the kids’ treehouse with flowers and miniature white lights, constructing a pulley system for the kids to deliver the food. He gave me two surprise 40th-birthday parties — both when I was still in my midthirties!
Peter let me in on his Easter surprise a bit, but only because I’d been planning brunch myself. The only thing I knew was that it was to take place in the woods across the road. One of the best things about where we live is that forest. Our old farmhouse has two-and-a-half mostly wooded acres, but whenever we take a walk across the road we’re reminded that people travel to get to such places. In minutes we can be away from the sights and sounds of civilization. On Easter eve, the kids spent the night at my folks, and Peter asked me to stay inside and read. I didn’t peek, but I was aware that he was making trip after trip with our garden cart. Easter morning, he disappeared at dawn. I busied myself hiding dyed eggs and baskets until my folks and children came from church. The older kids had gotten a bit old for the Easter Bunny thing, so it wasn’t quite the marathon it’d been in earlier years. Soon Peter called to us from the woods’ edge. Ten minutes later, we were there. Peter had done lots of planning and preparation, but Mother Nature had been an awesome assistant. The woods are spectacular in their fall glory, coolly green in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter, but on spring days such as that Easter they’re magical. The ground was carpeted in white wildflowers and May apples. Here and there dark-red trilliums and purple-blue wild delphiniums reared their heads, and tiny yellow violets hid shyly under their more assertive neighbors. The pale infant leaves overhead had just begun to unfurl, dappling the sunlight that shone through them. A soft, warm breeze carried the sounds of birdcalls, the rat-a-tat-tat of a faraway woodpecker, and the rushing water of the nearby creek. Peter had found a perfect spot in a small glade with gentle slopes. A long table, covered with a cloth, held vases of wildflowers. There was fresh orange juice for the kids, mimosas for the adults. The smoke from a small campfire curled upward, carrying with it the scent of the fresh coffee steaming on the grate and bacon frying in an iron skillet. The menu was classic camping fare: scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes fried with peppers and onions, and bread toasted over the fire on sticks. No one wanted to leave after we’d eaten. The kids picked more wildflowers, splashed in the creek, and made occasional forays back to the house for Easter candy. Hours later, things began to break up when my grandmother glanced at her watch and realized that she’d better get home if we were to have dinner. We vowed to repeat the experience each Easter, but the next year it rained and the year after it was too cold. Three years later my grandparents were unable to manage the hike. Perhaps it was for the best: Seems as if perfect experiences can never be reproduced. Still, every Easter, someone will always say: “Remember when we did that thing in the woods? We have to do that again sometime.”
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Easter brunch had been an occasion to experiment with new recipes until I served these garlic cheese grits with shrimp. Shrimp with grits is an old Southern favorite, but I’d always found versions in Southern restaurants and recipes a bit bland and so I developed this recipe. Ever since, it’s been on our Easter brunch menu by popular demand.
Garlic Cheese Grits with Shrimp
For the Shrimp 1 pound shelled and deveined shrimp, shells reserved 2 cups chicken stock or water 4 ounces diced slab or thick-cut bacon 1 teaspoon minced garlic (or to taste) 1/2 cup chilli sauce* (preferred) or catsup Worchestershire sauce, optional Thinly sliced scallions and chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
*Note: This chilli sauce is the condiment that’s like a chunky ketchup, not a Mexican/Hispanic sauce.
For the Garlic Cheese Grits 1 cup coarse-ground grits 3 cups whole milk (or use the proportion of liquid
to grits indicated on the package) 1 teaspoon minced garlic, or to taste 1 tablespoon butter 8 ounces grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese Salt to taste
For the shrimp: Combine the shrimp shells and stock or water in a large saucepan. If you are using water, add the aromatics (onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, garlic, etc.) as for stock. Bring pot to a very low simmer. Cook for about one hour. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Sauté the bacon until crisp, then drain it on paper towels and reserve the fat. In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of the reserved bacon fat over moderately high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté until it’s just cooked through. Transfer the shrimp to a plate; cover and keep it warm. Add a little more bacon fat to the skillet if necessary, then add the garlic and sauté until the garlic is softened. Turn the heat to high and add the stock and chilli sauce. Cook over high heat until the mixture is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add Worcestershire if desired. Return the shrimp to the pan and cook it just until heated through. Serve over garlic cheese grits garnished with the reserved bacon, minced scallions, and parsley, For the grits: In a large pan (preferably nonstick), sauté the garlic in butter until it is softened. Add milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Whisk in the grits and cook for 10 to 15 minutes (or longer, if you are using coarsely ground grits), stirring constantly. Add cheese, a handful at a time, stirring between handfuls. Serve immediately. Serves four to six.
Tips on advance preparation: The shrimp stock can be made as much as a day ahead. Refrigerate it — and the shrimp — if you are waiting longer than 1 hour to use it. The sauce for the shrimp can also be made ahead and should also be refrigerated if it is not being used right away. Refrigerate the cooked shrimp and bacon separately. The bacon should be allowed to come to room temperature before it is used. The grits do need to be made at the last minute, but if the cheese has been grated and the garlic minced ahead of time, the total prep time should only be 20 to 25 minutes.