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A big resort keeps the food local


A pastry chef shows off half of her very big and separate "bake shoppe" at the Sea Island resort. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

My spouse status at a weekend conference held in The Cloister at Sea Island, Ga., qualified me for a kitchen and wine cellar tour there. Sommelier Matt Koons led a small group through an incredible 11,000 square feet of culinary workspace under the main building; there’s another 4,000 square feet or so down the road at a separate facility.


Clay-lined bread ovens. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

No piece of modern professional kitchen equipment was left out of this operation -- with one exception -- and I suspect the staff of 60 or so might feel deprived at their next restaurant gigs. A combi oven big enough to roll a rack into (it can cook with moist, even heat and eliminate the need for, say, a bain-marie when making custards); a baker's oven that can handle 11 dozen cookies at a time; bread ovens with clay liners; and an onsite distribution center for staples, fresh produce and meats from local farms were but of a few of the enviable restaurant amenities.

That exception: Chef de cuisine Daniel Zeal's not a huge fan of immersion circulators, used for sous-vide cooking. He just got one, though, and says only he will experiment with it for now: "My guys are young, and I want to know that they can cook carrots properly -- not just set it and forget it."


Chef de cuisine Daniel Zeal. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

Zeal's in charge of the resort's several restaurants, including the Georgian Room, an elegant setting that seats 70. The 32-year-old Jacksonville native graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 2003, so running an operation of this size and scope says a lot about him. At 32, he’s also the oldest kitchen staffer.

Zeal’s daily work proves that industrial-size cooking does not have to start with a Sysco shipment. He estimates that 25 to 35 percent of his ingredients are organic. What he’s keener to note is that his intake is as sustainable as possible.

Two local farms account for much of the seasonal produce used in his kitchens. One of them, Sapelo Farms in Brunswick, Ga., seems to do it all: In addition to produce, it offers beef, goats, chicken and honey; a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program; and a farm journal that’s updated weekly. (Check out the farm Web site’s admirable collection of recipes.)




A Georgian Room dish: Colorado lamb loin with fava beans, beets, pine nut relish and opal basil. (Sea Island)


Some of the day's delivery from Sapelo Farms. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

The chef had just received Sapelo’s lovely purple Savoy cabbage, tender mustard greens, tatsoi and chickweed (a local specialty, Zeal says); early spring onions and carrots of different colors. We tasted the latter; they were so sweet and juicy. He demonstrated a crab cake recipe and its go-withs: a delicate citrus salad and red pepper aioli. And then we were treated to a serving of our own, with a well-matched 2004 Emrich-Schonleber Nahe Riesling Kabinett.

The salad and aioli were made with a few of Zeal’s “secret weapons,” which he was happy to share: Meyer lemon oil and kimchi base (a jarred variety with garlic, salt, sugar, ginger, vinegar and Korean chili powder). The oil complemented the small dice of supremed oranges, preserved lemon (which he makes in-house, packed with equal amounts of salt and sugar for 6 to 8 weeks). The kimchi base gave the aioli an understated zip.

Even his crab cakes had a little extra technique to them. Half of the crab meat is chopped/picked to a fine fare-thee-well, which, when combined with fresh bread crumbs, helps to bind the mixture. The other half remains in lump form, gently folded in to preserve its texture. Depending on the season, Zeal likes to use peekytoe for the finer crab and Georgia blue crab for the larger bits.




Zeal's crab cake with a light citrus salad and red pepper aioli. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

His weapons are going into my bag of tricks at home. The chef made these recipes in front of the group but I haven't had the chance to test them yet. When I do, they'll appear in our Recipe Finder.

-- Bonnie Benwick

Citrus Salad
6 to 8 servings

Assemble the salad just before serving.

1/2 cup orange segments, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon finely diced preserved lemon (available at Mediterranean stores and at Whole Foods Market)
1/4 cup Meyer lemon oil, such as O brand
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups baby arugula or mustard greens

Combine the oranges, preserved lemon, oil in a medium bowl; mix well, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Just before serving, add the greens and toss lightly to combine. The mixture can be piled on top of each crab cake.

NOTE: To segment an orange, slice off the bottom and the top. Stand the fruit on a cutting board with one of the cut sides down. Using a serrated knife, cut the peel and the pith away from the fruit, top to bottom. Then, holding the fruit in your hand, cut the orange segments away from the membrane. (The idea is to leave behind all of the membrane and white pith.)

Red Pepper Aioli
Makes 1 cup

Chef Daniel Zeal says this sauce is good on ramen noodles.

3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped (jarred) roasted red peppers
1/4 cup store-bought kimchi base (available at Asian markets and online; may substitute Srirachi chili sauce)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the mayonnaise, roasted red peppers, kimchi base, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste in the bowl of food processor. Puree until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container; cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Georgian Room Crab Cakes
6 to 8 servings

It's best to let the crab mixture chill for 1 hour before forming it into crab cakes.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
1/4 cup finely chopped red and yellow bell peppers
Water
1 pound lump crab meat, drained and patted dry; half of it finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 1/2 tablespoons of juice; about 2 teaspoons of zest)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1/3 cup freshly ground bread crumbs, plus more to taste (from white bread, no crusts)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
Maldon sea salt, for garnish (optional)

Heat the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned. Add a little water as needed to keep the vegetables from picking up color.

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels; transfer the vegetable mixture to the paper-towel-lined plate and spread them to blot dry, then place in a medium bowl (discard the paper towels). Add the finely chopped crab, Old Bay Seasoning, lemon juice and zest, mayonnaise, mustard, 1/3 cup of the bread crumbs; mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If the mixture seems too wet, add tablespoons of fresh bread crumbs as needed. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner or aluminum foil.

Use a ring mold (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter) to form 6 to 8 crab cakes that are about 1 inch thick.

Heat a tablespoon or so of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the crab cakes (without crowding) and cook for a few minutes until golden brown on the bottom, then turn them over and cook for a few minutes until golden brown on the second side. Transfer to the lined baking sheet and bake for a few minutes until heated through.

Serve warm; if desired, spread a few tablespoons of the red pepper aioli on individual plates. Place a crab cake on the aioli on each plate, then sprinkle each crab cake with a little of the finishing salt, if desired, and some of the citrus salad.

By The Food Section  |  March 9, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs , Recipes  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, chefs, recipes  
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