During the last days of winter and the first days of freedom from quarantine, my wife and I ventured to the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, Georgia, lured by the promise of sunshine, good food from its organic garden, and a psychic reboot.
We were sorry to have missed the tenure of chef Whitney Otawka, who recently decamped to Savannah to develop two restaurants for the Thompson Hotel. But we could tell from our first dinner there that the Greyfield’s new chef, Jada Veljkov, the former chef de cuisine at the landmark Athens, Georgia, restaurant Five & Ten, had a distinctive (and pretty wonderful) point of view. Her dishes were layered with flavor but not complicated. She just knew how to coax real character from the ingredients—particularly the vegetables.
For me, one plate especially stood out during our trip: slices of maple-glazed butternut squash, which she served with mild curried yogurt and benne granola. It was smart and thoughtfully seasoned, but what made the dish extraordinary was the way she cooked the squash on only one side, so each bite went from deep caramel to just barely past raw. She didn’t so much balance the flavor of the squash as excavate it and then find it some good company. It reminded me a bit of the technique for cooking salmon fillets à l’unilatérale that used to be popular in restaurants, and it worked just as well on the romanesco and broccoli florets she served the next night.
After getting home, I finagled a phone call with Veljkov to talk more about her one-sided approach. “You know that old saying: Color is flavor,” she explains. “You get to keep that freshly picked vegetable flavor on one side. On the flip side, literally, you get that deep flavor you can only get from caramelization.” She uses nothing fancier than a cast-iron skillet to achieve this result, and her main ingredient is time. “I tell cooks to sear it until it makes you uncomfortable,” she says, laughing.
Currently she’s been using the technique for summer squash, pairing it with a sweet-and-sour pepper agrodolce and a tart salsa verde that gets its edge from green tomato juice. “It’s the only way I’m eating squash these days,” she says.
I may join her. Veljkov’s recipe is just what my summer garden needs as it hits peak zucchini overload and green tomatoes are heavy on the vine, with more than a few split and misshapen ones that need culling.