Rising star chef Whitney Otawka was raised in a small town in California's Mojave Desert. She earned a degree in anthropology before deciding on a cooking career. She's had jobs at some of the nation's top restaurants, but fell in love with Southern cuisine while working in Athens, Georgia.
Now she makes her home not far from there, on Georgia's rustic Cumberland Island, where she's executive chef at the prestigious Greyfield Inn.
Seaside cuisine is the subject of her just-released first cookbook, "The Saltwater Table: Recipes from the Coastal South" (Abrams).
Here are some of Otawka's recipes:
Fish, Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and grits are iconic in Low Country cooking. It's hard to think of another dish that has the same grasp on the culinary identity of this region. Fish and grits, though, that's a different story, and while equally alluring, it has remained in the shadows of its more famous counterpart. During my first winter on the barrier islands, on a particularly cold and blustery day, I was treated to a simple meal of cornmeal-dredged flounder served over buttery grits. Hearty and warming, this dish has been a favorite of mine since. This is my heartfelt rendition of classic Low Country cooking. The shrimp is turned into a butter, which gets stirred into rice grits, a broken rice grain. The flounder is seared to a perfect golden brown and garnished with lemon and flaky sea salt, and ideally should be served with an ice-cold beer.
- 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) milk
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the flounder
- 1 bay leaf
- 1⁄2 cup (90 g) rice grits
- 1 1⁄4 cups (235 g) shrimp butter (recipe follows)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 4 (5-ounce/140 g) flounder fillets
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- pinch of sea salt
In a medium pot, combine 2 1⁄2 cups (600 ml) water, the milk, kosher salt, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir in the rice grits. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 16 minutes, stirring frequently. When the rice grits are cooked though, add 1 cup (190 g) of the shrimp butter. Stir to combine.
While the rice grits are cooking, lightly season the flounder with a pinch of kosher salt for each fillet. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the fillets in a single layer. Make sure there is room between the fish fillets. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, letting the fish sear to a nice golden brown. Flip and sear until cooked through, about 1 minute. Remove the fish from the pan. Pour off the excess oil. To the pan, add the remaining 1⁄4 cup (45 g) shrimp butter, the lemon juice, and parsley to make a quick pan sauce.
To serve, spoon the rice grits into serving bowls. Top with the flounder fillets and pan sauce. Serve with the lemon wedges and sea salt.
Shrimp Butter (makes 1 1⁄4 cups)
- 1⁄2 cup (1 stick/115 g) butter
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 8 ounces (225 g) shrimp, peeled and cleaned
- 1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon paprika
- 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine
- 1⁄4 teaspoon tabasco sauce
- 1⁄4 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt half of the butter. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the shrimp, cayenne, paprika, black pepper, and salt. Cook until just barely done, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to a food processor. Return the pan to the heat and deglaze with the wine. Reduce by half. Add the reduced wine, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and the remaining butter to the food processor. Pulse until smooth. Set aside until ready to use. Shrimp butter can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Cast-iron Filet Beans with Piperade and Benne Seed
A well-seasoned cast-iron pan is essential to any kitchen, which is a lesson I learned cooking in the South. These pans add distinct flavors to the food being cooked in them, and I think they impart a particular texture to vegetables. Filet beans are a variety of green beans that are small and tender. They will pick up just the right amount of char from a cast-iron pan, which imparts a subtle smokey depth. They leave the beans cooked with a retained crunch. The Spanish-inspired piperade is a simplified version that I like to keep on hand in the kitchen for everything from topping vegetables to frittatas. A sprinkle of benne seed, an heirloom variety of sesame seed, adds a perfect bit of crunch.
- 1 pound (455 g) filet beans or green beans
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1⁄2 cups (360 g) piperade (recipe follows)
- 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon toasted benne seed
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Trim any stems from the filet beans and cut them in half on a bias. Add them to the boiling water and blanch until tender but still crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and transfer to an ice water bath until cold. Drain and pat dry with a kitchen towel; set aside.
In a large cast-iron pan, heat the oil over high heat. Add the filet beans and shake the pan to evenly distribute them. Let the beans cook until they begin to char, about 1 minute. Shake the pan again and continue to cook until evenly charred, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the piperade, stock, and butter, stirring to combine. Reduce until slightly thick- ened, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat. Toss in the benne seeds and parsley and serve.
Piperade (makes 1 1⁄2 cups)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 red bell peppers, diced small
- 1⁄2 cup (65 g) small-dice onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1⁄4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1⁄4 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over low heat. Add the bell peppers and cook gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the smoked paprika, sweet paprika,salt, and vinegar. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to use.
The piperade can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Fried Oyster Salad with Radish and Buttermilk
WARNING: If you leave your plate of fried oysters unattended, they will never make it to the salad. This recipe yields perfectly crunchy oysters that are good enough to eat alone. Convert your non-oyster-eating friends with a bowl of these. The southeast coast is famed for its fish camps, rustic seafood restaurants that serve up the local catch. No establishment would open its doors without fried oysters on the menu. Layering it on a salad is a perfect way to add balance to the indulgence of eating fried seafood. Peppery radish, tart buttermilk dressing, and fresh herbs make this a bright addition to a winter menu.
- 6 ounces (170 g) loose- leaf lettuces
- 2 or 3 winter radishes, cut in half and thinly sliced into half-moons
- 1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup (240 ml) buttermilk dressing (recipe follows)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil
- 20 fried oysters (recipe follows)
In a mixing bowl, put the lettuces, radish, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. Gently toss to combine and transfer to a serving platter. Drizzle 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) of the dressing over the salad. Add the parsley and chervil and top with the fried oysters. Serve immediately. Serve with the remaining 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) dressing on the side for people to use as they like.
Buttermilk Dressing (makes 1 1⁄2 cups)
- 1⁄2 small shallot, finely minced
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley
- 3⁄4 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) sour cream
- 1⁄4 cup (60 ml) mayonnaise
- 3⁄4 cup (180 ml) buttermilk
In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients. Refrigerate, for up to 5 days, until ready to use.
Fried Oysters (makes 20 oysters)
- 4 cups (960 ml) canola oil
- 1 cup (240 ml) buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon tabasco sauce
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1⁄2 cup (70 g) fine yellow cornmeal
- 1⁄2 cup (65 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (100 g) fine breadcrumbs
- 20 oysters, shucked
In a medium pot, heat the oil to 350°F (175°C). In a bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and Tabasco sauce. In a separate bowl, whisk together the salt, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cornmeal, flour, and breadcrumbs. Add the shucked oysters to the buttermilk mixture to coat. Remove the oysters from the buttermilk and place them in the cornmeal dredge. Toss to coat them evenly and transfer to a wire rack until ready to fry.
Working in batches, gently lower the oysters into the oil and fry until golden brown and crispy, about 2 1⁄2 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel– lined plate to cool slightly.
Ben's Buttermilk Biscuits with Peach & Bay Laurel Jam
I met Ben working as a line cook in Athens, Georgia. Ben was a pastry chef. It was a relatively small kitchen, so there would be a few days early in the week when it was just the two of us, working and talking. We developed a strong friendship. Every Sunday brunch, Ben was responsible for making buttermilk biscuits. After the biscuits were baked, Ben would offer me one, hot and fresh out of the oven. He would break a biscuit open, and with the flaky layers steaming, he would butter it up and send it my way. As the weeks progressed, Ben started making my biscuits more elaborate. One week it would have melted pimento cheese; the next week was country ham and a fried egg. He would wrap them in foil and pass them across the line to me before service began. Each week it was a new little foil package, thoughtfully assembled. I loved those biscuits. I used to tell him that if he made biscuits for me every day, I might have to marry him. Well, we did get married, and I have since learned to make Ben's biscuit recipe. These biscuits even made it into our wedding vows. Just remember, in the South, mind who you make biscuits for. . . . You may end up marrying them one day.
- 1 cup (2 sticks/225 g) cold butter, plus 3 tablespoons melted
- 4 cups (510 g) all- purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 1⁄4 tablespoons salt
- 1 3⁄4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (450 ml) buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the cold butter into a dish and put in the freezer while you gather the rest of the ingredients. You want your butter to be very cold when you mix it with the flour.
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Stir in the salt. Add the frozen butter and use your hands to mix the butter into the flour until pebbly in appearance. Pour in the buttermilk and use your hands to form a loose dough.
Lightly dust your work surface with flour. Turn out the biscuit dough and gently work the dough just until it just comes together. Lightly dust a rolling pin with some of the extra flour and begin rolling out the dough until 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick.
Fold the dough into thirds from top to bottom. (Folding the dough will give the biscuits beautiful flaky layers.) Lightly roll out the dough a second time and fold into thirds again, this time from side to side.
Roll out the dough to 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and using a 3-inch (7.5 cm) round cutter, cut out as many biscuits as you can. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Take the dough scraps, form them back into a ball and roll out to 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick again, and cut out more biscuits.
Brush the melted butter over the tops of the biscuits. Bake the biscuits until they are a beautiful golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes.
NOTE: You can freeze the raw biscuits for another time. Place on a baking sheet and freeze until solid, then package in zip-top bags. You don't need to thaw before cooking; simply place the frozen biscuits on a baking sheet and bake. They will take just a few minutes longer to bake.
Grapefruit Tart with Chamomile Cream and Honey
Makes 1 (9-inch) tart
Florida is famous for its citrus. Every winter, island residents have trees that hang fully weighted with sweet fruit eager to be used. In the kitchen, we are gifted basket after basket of grapefruits and oranges. Dimpled and discolored, the grapefruits are not winning any beauty contests. But cut them open and you are treated to bright pink, tartly sweet flesh that is a joy to keep up with. We run around juicing grapefruits, using them for cocktails, marinades, and of course sweet treats. Inspired by a classic lemon tart, we use island grapefruits, serving each slice alongside local honey and a dollop of chamomile cream.
- ¼ cup (25 g) sliced almonds
- 6 tablespoons (45 g) confectioners' sugar
- 1 ¼ cups (160 g) all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons
- (85 g) cold butter, diced
- 2 tablespoons ice water
- 3 large eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- ¾ cup (150 g) granulated sugar
- Zest of 1 grapefruit
- 1 cup (240 ml) grapefruit juice
- ¼ cup (60 ml) buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons dried chamomile flowers
- (see note)
- To serve
- 2 ½ cups chamomile cream (recipe follows)
- Grapefruit segments
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Make the dough: In a food processor, add the almonds and confectioners' sugar. Pulse until the almonds are finely ground. Add the flour and salt. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is well incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add the ice water and pulse until the dough comes together. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch (23 cm) tart pan with a removable bottom. Using floured hands, press the dough into the bottom of the tart pan and up the sides. Use the bottom of a cup measure to smooth and even out the dough. Make sure there are no holes or cracks in the crust. Trim the edges and reserve the scraps. Chill for 30 minutes. While the dough is chilling, make the filling: In a bowl, combine the whole eggs, egg yolks, granulated sugar, grapefruit zest, grape fruit juice, buttermilk, and chamomile flowers. Whisk to combine. Place in the refrigerator and let steep for 1 hour. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and discard the solids. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes, or until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F (165°C). Check the tart shell for any holes or cracks and patch with reserved dough scraps if needed. Place the tart shell on a flat baking sheet and transfer to the oven. Carefully pour in the grapefruit filling and bake until the filling is set, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes, then place in the refrigerator until cold, about 1 hour. Serve the tart cold topped with chamomile cream, drizzles of honey, and grapefruit wedges.
- 1 ½ cups (360 ml) heavy cream
- 5 tablespoons (10 g) dried chamomile flowers (see note)
- 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
In a small pot, bring the cream to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add the chamomile flowers. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain and chill the cream until cold (the cream will not whip if it is not cold). In a bowl, combine the chamomile cream and confectioners' sugar and whip to medium peaks.
NOTE: If you can't find the flowers, you can substitute 2 chamomile teabags to make the tart filling and 5 chamomile teabags to make the chamomile cream. Open the tea bags and empty the contents into the egg mixture or the simmering cream.
Cocktail: The Old Man & the Sea
With small producers along the southeast coast bringing sugarcane back to the region once known for its production, the South is ready for a rum renaissance. In Charleston, South Carolina, High Wire Distilling Company is producing what it calls Lowcountry Agricole using locally grown, fresh Blue Ribbon Sugar Cane in the style of West Indies rhum agricole. Richland Rum, known for its estate grown, single origin production using heirloom Georgia red cane, has two distilleries in Georgia. On Sapelo Island, Georgia, Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane has been revived, being grown for production in cane syrup. Let's hope Sapelo Island Rum is in the future. Inspired by these producers we created a play on the classic Hemingway Daiquiri. The story goes that while living in Cuba, Hemingway frequented El Floridita in Havana, and upon tasting a daiquiri he gave his approval but asked for double the rum and no sugar. Keeping the classic Hemingway in mind, we added a little flaky sea salt and coconut water.
- 2 ounces (60 ml) white rum
- 2 ounces (60 ml) grapefruit juice
- 2 ounces (60 ml) coconut water
- 1 ounce (30 ml) lime juice
Tiny pinch of salt
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the rum, grapefruit juice, coconut water, and lime juice. Shake well to combine and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Sprinkle the salt over the drink.