Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another Party

Christmas Eve traditions is a previous blog but I would be remiss if I didn't tell you about a wonderful dish we enjoyed for years thanks to Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph and Aunt Lill and their family are not blood relatives. But they are related in the best way - by choice, time and genuine love. The Henry's and the Jones have been friends for about 50 years. Mimi and Bobo met Aunt Lill and Uncle Ralph, quickly bonded and our families merged through fun, shared vacations, canoe trips and time. Uncle Ralph took me for my first drive in his convertible when I had my 16th birthday and a learner's permit. Uncle Ralph's affectionate nickname is the Tennessee Cannonball. It exclaims his love of life and fun and willingness to get on board for a good time. He and Aunt Lill are nothing if not spontaneous, joyful and incredibly loving people. Their friendship has meant so much to our family and is cherished to this day.

One Christmas Eve, Uncle Ralph called and offered a treat for the whole family. It was Oysters Rockefeller to be served with our charcuterie, turkey and lettuce leaves and champagne. He asked how many of us there would be -12. A short while later he came to the door with 12 tin pans filled with rock salt beds with oysters in half shells. The oysters were napped in a beautiful green sauce topped with Parmesan cheese. The oysters were broiled until the sauce and oysters were cooked and the cheese was a lovely brown. The briny oysters, the herby sauce, the taste of anise from Pernod and the slight bitterness of the cheese were incredible. I cannot eat Oysters Rockefeller without thinking of Uncle Ralph and his wonderful spirit.

Oysters Rockefeller were created in 1899 by Jules Alciatore of Antoine's Restaurant's. Antoine's is a New Orleans landmark that opened in 1840 and lives on as a mecca for people who want to eat New Orleans elegant cuisine. Culinary legend has it that Jules created the dish when the taste for snails was waning among customers and snails became increasingly hard to obtain. The recipe for Oysters Rockefeller is a closely guarded secret and even former staff refuse to disclose the recipe. People who have developed their take on the dish have substituted spinach to achieve the green color of the sauce. Antoine's does say there is no spinach in their recipe. The spinach version is delicious as I will testify readily to that. It does make sense though that the sauce would be created from ingredients that were "at hand" in a New Orleans restaurant kitchen - herbs, green onions, celery leaves perhaps. The herbs and greens are an integral part of another much loved dish Gumbo Z'herbes. So it seems that one recipe could be closely aligned with the other.

Oysters Rockefeller

Two dozen fresh oysters on the half shell, oyster liquor reserved
4 sprigs flat-leaf Italian parsley
4 green onions (including the green part)
A handful of fresh celery leaves
At least 6 fresh tarragon leaves
At least 6 fresh chervil leaves
1/2 cup dried fresh French bread crumbs (not out of a can)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce, to taste
2 tablespoons Herbsaint or Pernod
Parmigiano Reggiano grated finely
Rock salt or kosher salt

Mince together the parsley, green onions, celery leaves, tarragon and chervil as finely as you possibly can. Take as much time as you need. Mince them more finely than anything you've ever minced in your life. Mix this together with the bread crumbs and the softened butter into a mortar and mix the whole thing together into a smooth paste, but do leave a little texture to it. Season to taste with salt and pepper, Tabasco or Crystal and the Pernod.

Preheat your broiler. Lower the top rack to the middle of the oven. Spread the rock salt (preferable) or kosher salt over a large baking sheet; this will keep the oysters level under the broiler, so that they won't tip over. Moisten the salt very slightly. Plant the shells in the salt, making sure they're level. Place one oyster in each shell, plus a little bit of oyster liquor. Spoon an equal amount of the prepared herb/butter mixture over each oyster. Dust with a little Parmesan cheese

Place the baking sheet on the middle rack and broil until the edges of the oysters have curled and the herb butter is bubbling, about five minutes. Watch carefully to make sure you don't overdo it. Serve immediately.

You can also put the salt in tin pie pans and divide the oysters to serve four or six depending on the appetites of your guests and other dishes being served.

Six servings of four oysters each (regular people-sized serving), or four servings of six oysters each (New Orleanian-sized serving)

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