Words: Whitney Otawka | Photos: Emily B. Hall
Long-eluded throughout her career, adoptive Southern Chef Whitney Otawka finally discovers the secret to perfect Frogmore Stew – or as it is more commonly known, a Lowcountry boil – on the sleepy coast of Georgia.
Frogmore Stew. I’ve cooked this dish thousands, literally thousands, of times in my career. If I had to guess, I’d lay a claim to cooking 8,000 simmering bowls of Frogmore Stew. Let’s be clear. I am not from the South, nor am I even from a coast. At 26, I was introduced to this landmark dish in a trial by fire moment. I “grew up” in a famous Athens, Georgia restaurant under the watchful eye of a popular chef. Frogmore Stew was the signature dish and it never left the menu. This dish is a roadmap of my culinary career.
My first job as Garde Manger (cold/salad station) put me right next to the fish station. I knew I’d earned some respect when the fish cook asked me to plate the Frogmore Stew during a large push—up to twenty plates at a time. Moving from Garde Manger to the fish station at the end of a shift gave me an opportunity to catch the last few “fires” of the night, which almost always included a bowl or two of Frogmore Stew. I took pride in these moments. I carefully guarded each little pot of stew, double-checking my seasoning, hoping that this was the very best bowl of Frogmore the restaurant had ever served and I would be regaled as the greatest line cook of all time. A girl can dream, right?
The next step in my culinary journey was promotion to the fish station. At the time the fish station was the “it” station, demanding skill and endurance. No mercy. On a busy night, we knocked out 250 to 300 covers. I loved the pace and excelled under extreme pressure. Prepping and cooking Frogmore became autopilot: shrimp, fingerling potatoes, corn, Andouille sausage, Frogmore broth (one part tomato juice and one part clam juice), Old Bay, and aromatics (small dice of leeks, red onion, and fennel). Throw it in a pot, cook it down, throw it in a dish, garnish with arugula and grilled bread. Frogmore turned into an afterthought —the easy dish. Left over Frogmore broth became a frequent late night meal. I would grab the last, dried up corners of bread floating around my station and sop up the over-reduced Frogmore both. Perfect . . . almost.
Confession. See, for as much as Frogmore was the signature dish, I never really liked it. It was good, but not great. At the time, I could not have explained why. My move to the Georgia coast inspired the next chapter in my life as a chef and revealed to me what was missing from the famed Frogmore Stew. Call it what you will—Frogmore Stew, Low Country Boil, or Beaufort Boil—it almost always has a dusting of Old Bay, boiled potatoes, sausage and corn. It may contain shrimp, clams, or blue crabs. It may also contain all three! And that, my hungry friends, is where the magic lies. It must have the best damn seafood you can get your hands on.
That’s what opened my eyes and my taste buds to the glories of Frogmore Stew. I moved to Cumberland Island to take the reigns as Executive Chef for the first time at the famous Greyfield Inn. I can say with 100 percent certainty that I never really tasted shrimp until I tasted shrimp fresh from the Georgia coast. Now I’m spoiled. When I need shrimp, I don’t have to go far. The Greyfield’s boat, Lucy Ferguson, pulls up alongside a local shrimp boat and we get 60 to 100 pounds of head-on Georgia whites. When blue crabs are needed, we load up a trap with chicken necks, drop the trap off the dock, and cross our fingers. Need clams? Just hop in the truck and ride up to the north end of the island and clam away. Shuck one of those babies open right out of the sand and never consider eating inland clams again. Sweet and mildly briny, fresh-shucked, raw clams are divine.
My eyes are opened. For all of the thousands of Frogmore Stews I cooked early in my career, I never truly cooked one the right way. What’s the right way? Frogmore Stew made with fresh, local seafood on a summer night, Spanish moss swaying gently overhead, newspaper spread over the table, and the background music of cicadas. These days I prefer to call it Low Country boil for its a beautiful tradition.This is a dish to eat with the hands and get dirty. Toss that fork over a shoulder and dive in. This is a dish to be shared with friends and family. When I eat a Low Country boil, I know where I am — in the South, near the marsh mud and the salty sea.
Here at Greyfield Inn we cook this dish during the early part of the summer. I like to serve a smoked paprika butter alongside, good for dipping everything from shrimp to potatoes. Dig in.
Low Country Boil
Serves 12-14 people
1 large stainless steel pot, preferably one that comes with a perforated basket
1 turkey burner and a full propane tank
1 large spoon with a long handle
Lots of newspaper to cover your table
Cooler full of ice-cold beer, for drinking
For the Boil:
3 gallons water
2 quarts tomato juice
5 bay leaves
15 sprigs of fresh thyme, about a small handful
5 lemons cut into ¼ inch thick slices
¾ cup Old Bay seasoning
1/3 cup kosher salt
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into wedges
1 large onion, peeled and cut into wedges
6 ears of corn, shucked and cut into 2 inch pieces
1 pound Andouille sausage* cut into ¼ inch slices
6 pounds of the freshest, unpeeled shrimp you can get, head on is even better
Smoked Paprika Butter (see below)
In the pot, combine the water, tomato juice, bay leaves, fresh thyme, lemons, old bay and salt. Bring to a boil. When the mixture reaches a boil, lower heat and simmer for about 10 minutes to let the aromatics infuse the water. Add in the potatoes and onions. Cook for 10 minutes. Add in corn and Andouille sausage. Cook for 5 minutes. Add in shrimp and cook just until their tails curl up, about 4 minutes. Lift the perforated basket out of the pot, or simply scoop out the ingredients with a long handled strainer. Dump the strained low country boil onto a newspaper-lined table or a platter and dust with additional tablespoon of Old Bay and a tablespoon of kosher salt. Serve alongside the beer and Smoked Paprika Butter.
Smoked Paprika Butter
7 small cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound soft butter
¼ cup Worcestershire
3 tablespoons of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt
In a medium sized saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add in the minced garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add in the Worcestershire and reduce by half, about 3 minutes. Adjust the heat to low and add in the smoked paprika and kosher salt, stir to combine. Begin adding in the butter while whisking. When butter is fully incorporated, remove the mixture from the heat and reserve.
*Looking for a good Andouille sausage? Check our Star Provisions in Atlanta. They make an amazing selection of charcuterie. Another favorite is the Andouille made at Butcher in New Orleans. Owned by one of my all time favorite chefs, Donald Link, this stuff is the real deal and worth having shipped to your door.
About the Author:
Whitney Otawka is as award winning Chef who has trained in some of the world’s top restaurants. Originally from California, she moved to Georgia in 2004 and quickly fell in love with the food, history, and culture that defines the South. She was a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and has had recipes published by The New York Times, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, and The Local Palate. She has an unshakable wanderlust, love of eating, and a need to write. She currently lives and works on Cumberland Island, Georgia.