Cooking from the Bar Cart: Shrimp and Grits with Absinthe

The herbaceous spirit worms its way into the Lowcountry classic, with divine results


Cocktail lore brims with stories of mayhem and madness wrought by absinthe, aka the Green Fairy. The blame for its deleterious effects fell on thujone, a chemical in wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which along with fennel and anise was used to flavor the spirit and give it its green hue. A century-spanning ban in many countries followed, with wormwood-free pastis, a sweeter, licorice-flavored alternative, taking the maligned liquor’s place. The less-potent liqueur found its way into seafood dishes, soups, cookies, and cakes. But in time, science proved that absinthe’s devilish properties were just a Green Fairy tale, and its popularity has roared back in cocktails and cooking. 

Grab absinthe for savory dishes and save its sweeter sibling for desserts. You can use much less absinthe to get the distinctive herby, anise complexity that works so well with shellfish dishes like this one—or steamed mussels in broth, or oysters Rockefeller—while avoiding the overt sweetness that pastis brings. Here, classic shrimp and grits gets the French marinières (or “sailor-style”) treatment with a splash of absinthe in both stock and sauce. It’s a way to add lots of flavor with minimal effort. And no one will call you crazy if you choose to sip a little while you cook.

See other recipes in our Cooking from the Bar Cart series.

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  • Shrimp and Grits with Absinthe (Yield: 4 servings)

    • 1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved and shrimp refrigerated

  • For the shellfish stock

    • 1 tbsp. salted butter

    • 1 tbsp. olive oil

    • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

    • 1 shallot, thinly sliced

    • Reserved shrimp shells

    • ¼ cup absinthe

    • 6 cups water

    • 6 black peppercorns

    • 1 thyme sprig

    • ½ bay leaf

    • 1 parsley sprig

  • For the grits

    • 4 cups shellfish stock

    • 1 tbsp. salted butter

    • Kosher salt

    • 1 cup stone-ground grits, such as McEwen & Sons

    • Freshly ground black pepper

  • For the shrimp sauce

    • 1 tsp. olive oil

    • 2 thick-cut hickory bacon slices, sliced into ¼-inch matchsticks

    • ½ cup chopped shallots (about 3 large shallots)

    • 3 large garlic cloves, chopped

    • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

    • 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained

    • 6 tbsp. salted butter

    • Reserved peeled shrimp

    • Kosher salt

    • Freshly ground black pepper

    • 1 tbsp. absinthe

    • ¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

    • ¼ cup sliced chives


  1. Make the shellfish stock: Heat a 4-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the butter, olive oil, garlic, shallot, and shrimp shells. Stir for 2 minutes or until shrimp shells turn pink, but garlic does not brown. Remove from heat and stir in the absinthe. Return to the heat and add the water, peppercorns, thyme sprig, bay leaf, and parsley sprig. Simmer gently uncovered for 30 minutes. Pour stock through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing solids with the back of a spoon to extract the flavorful liquid; discard solids. (Stock may be prepared ahead and refrigerated.) 

  2. Make the grits: Bring the shellfish stock, butter, and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the grits and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, 40 minutes or until grits are tender. Taste and stir in more salt if desired and ½ teaspoon black pepper or more to taste. Set aside and keep warm over very low heat, stirring from time to time.

  3. Make the shrimp sauce: While the grits cook, heat a large nonreactive skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the bacon is just crisp, 5–8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the skillet.

  4. Reduce heat to low. Add the shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes, tomatoes, and butter to the skillet; stir until butter melts. Season the peeled shrimp with salt and pepper and nestle in the pan in a single layer. Gently poach in the butter on the first side for 10 minutes. Turn, and poach 8 to 10 minutes more, or until opaque, pink, and cooked through. Transfer the shrimp to a plate. Remove the skillet from the heat to stir in the absinthe. Return to the heat and simmer sauce over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes to thicken slightly. Fold the shrimp back into the sauce with the parsley. Spoon shrimp mixture over hot grits. Garnish with reserved bacon and sliced chives. Serve immediately.

Katherine Cobbs is a cookbook author and editor. Her recent books are Pantry Cocktails (2021), Tequila & Tacos (2020), and Cookies & Cocktails (2019) published by Simon & Schuster. She also developed recipes for Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook – Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories.