In the bleak mid-winter I sometimes ponder the Chesapeake watermen who are out there dredging up oysters for our pleasure. It's tough life, but we're glad they do it, because a Chesapeake oyster is a wonderful thing. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School, there's more to oysters than just shucking and slurping.
One of the most celebrated uses of oysters is to whip up a batch of Oysters Rockefeller, one of the best-loved but most mysterious dishes in America. Here's the story.
French immegré Antoine Alciatore opened his New Orleans restaurant "Antoine's" in 1840, serving French food modified for available local ingredients. One of his best-loved dishes was "escargot bourguignon", recreated from old world recipes.
By 1899 you just couldn't get good snails any more, and young Jules Alciatore, now the owner, settled on the local oyster as a substitute. Armed with a few bushels, he went into the kitchen where he tinkered with all manner of local ingredients, and came up with a very rich little dish of baked oysters in a green vegetable sauce.
The staff sampled it, and someone remarked that it tasted as rich as Rockefeller; and thus was an immortal dish christened. Being a savvy businessman, Jules immediately swore the entire kitchen staff to secrecy regarding the details of the recipe. Why? For one the dish is deceptively simple, and guesswork could unravel parts of the recipe. But apparently there are one or two special ingredients and a key set of ingredient proportions that hold the answer. Jules understood that secrecy would enhance the cachet of what he instinctively knew would be come a hit dish.
Most first time tasters will swear that spinach is the main ingredient, and in many cases of imitation, it certainly is. However, the owners of Antoine's have repeatedly sworn that the green sauce is "a purée of a number of green vegetables other than spinach." Hmm. Several favorite candidates have emerged over time, including parsley, shallots, and watercress, and thinking outside the box we might add sorrel, chervil, or even collards.
Whatever the blend of greens, you will always want to have tons of butter, bread crumbs, a little garlic, a dash of Tobasco sauce, and a dollop of two of Pernod.
One would think that the oyster liquor would be retained for cooking the greens, and of course the carefully cleaned bottom shells would be the baking vessel.
Some modern approximations of the dish suggest the inclusion of Parmesan cheese, but virtually none of the original speculations mention that.
The baking technique is an old standby for oysters: you get a broad pan, and pour a couple pounds of rock salt into the bottom. Smooth it out to a useful depth, and seat the oyster shells down into the salt. They'll stay put. 10-15 minutes in a hot oven will do the trick.
This is a great dish for fooling around with at home. You may even hit upon the true secret recipe, but nobody would ever tell you. So have fun guessing, and dazzle your dinner guests with a dish worthy of Rockefeller, or let's say, Bill Gates.
Here's a modern guess for Oysters Rockefeller, inspired by Epicurious.
24 fresh oysters, shucked, bottom shells and liquor reserved
1 garlic clove
2 cups loosely packed fresh spinach
1 bunch watercress, stems trimmed
1/2 cup chopped green onions
pinch of salt
1/2 cup water
oyster liquor (about 1/2 cup)
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 pound (about) rock salt
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 450°F. Finely chop garlic processor. Sauté spinach, watercress and green onions, with the garlic in a skillet with the salt, water and oyster liquor. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the greens are thoroughly cooked.
2. In a food processer, purée the greens, using on/off turns, until mixture is finely chopped. Transfer mixture to medium bowl.
3. Combine butter, breadcrumbs, Pernod, fennel and hot sauce in processor. Process until well blended. Return spinach mixture to processor. Process, using on/off turns just until mixtures are blended. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover; chill.)
4. Sprinkle rock salt over large baking sheet to depth of 1/2 inch. Arrange oysters in half shells atop rock salt. Top each oyster with 1 tablespoon spinach mixture. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake until spinach mixture browns on top, about 8 minutes.