Market to Table

OYSTERS AS RICH AS ROCKEFELLER

Huîtres en coquille à la Rockefeller

The authentic recipe for Oysters Rockefeller was developed at Antoine’s in New Orleans in 1899 and remains a secret to this day, but we come close with our own delicious version.

The story goes that a regular at Antoine’s, on first eating this baked oyster dish, said: “This is as rich as Rockefeller.” John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), was then the richest man in America. The dish was first served 120 years ago by Jules Alciatore, the son of founder Antoine himself, as a replacement for a similar dish using snails. Snails were in short supply and oysters plentiful. The name and the popularity of the dish have lived on, long past a temporary shortage of escargots. The restaurant opened in 1840 and is still going, America’s oldest family-run restaurant and the oldest French-creole restaurant in New Orleans.

I’ve eaten OR across Canada, wherever fresh oysters are available. In Tofino, we escaped the rigors of our posh Long Beach hotel and wandered into town looking for a nice bar. We found The Schooner, offering the dish at a buck a shell during happy hour, such a good deal that we consumed more than was good for us, washed down with copious quantities of good local beer. As I recall, they made them with Pernod flavoured spinach and a sauce that might have been hollandaise.

OYSTERS E

Fresh PEI Raspberry Point oysters as a control group

On the other side of the country at Halifax’s wonderful Five Fishermen, where I’ve been known to eat two steamed lobsters, I’ve also enjoyed the dish. There they serve OR with sautéed spinach, double smoked bacon and a Pernod emulsion. Delicious, but again not truly authentic.

Last week I was yearning for fresh oysters and Diane and I shared a half-dozen fat fresh ones at a lazy late lunch on the sunny patio at the Distillery District’s Pure Spirits Oyster House in Toronto. They serve their version of OR with spinach, bacon and a béchamel sauce, lemon and parmesan gremolata. I had to look up the latter – it’s a chopped herb condiment classically made of lemon zest, garlic, parsley and anchovy.

While on the subject and diving into some deep research, taste buds already tingling, it turns out that most chefs offer Oysters Rockefeller with some sort of cooked spinach, a herbed sauce and frequently bacon. I’m determined to get closer to Antoine’s original. Short of a quick trip to New Orleans, I’m going to have to go by trial and error, and a few oysters might get sacrificed en route.

OYSTERS B

Oven ready – with spinach (L) and Antoine’s original (R)

I should say, before I get too deep into this story, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the dish made with spinach or bacon. But I’m looking for the authentic experience and all I know is that it is bright green and not made with spinach, according to Antoine’s staff. They’ve kept the secret for over 100 years, but they still insist there’s no spinach. In 1980, Roy F. Guste, Jr., the great-great grandson of founder Jules Antoine, wrote in Antoine’s Restaurant Cookbook that “the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach.”

Simple ingredients and no spinach

A 1986 laboratory analysis (by one William Poundstone) indicated its primary ingredients were parsley, pureed and strained celery, scallions or chives (indistinguishable in a food lab), olive oil, and capers, so that’s where we’ll start off and see if we can come up with a balance that will tempt your taste buds.

I will find the best spinach version I can and cook that and compare it with my best effort at duplicating the Antoine’s version. Whichever is the tastiest wins!

Incidentally, the most popular recipe I’ve posted since Gentleman’s Portion launched in December 2012, has been an authentic Eggs Benedict. This is another of those dishes which originated in the United States, this time in New York, and generally handled very poorly in the United Kingdom. At The Cavendish Hotel, in Baslow on the Chatsworth Estate, the eggs Benny were so awful that I sent them back and had a simple poached egg instead. A quick check reveals they’re still on the menu, so I hope they’ve improved. I did offer the chef a link to my blog, via the front desk chappie. No report on his reaction.

I’ve dealt with how to shuck oysters in Market to Table: The Cookbook, now available as an e-book on Amazon, i-Tunes and Lulu.com at a very reasonable price, so I won’t repeat the tricks here. Check it out!

HUÎTRES EN COQUILLE À LA ROCKEFELLER

OYSTERS D

Antoine’s original recipe

This is as close as I can get to the original Antoine’s version, without spinach. You might try experimenting with different proportions of green vegetable ingredients, or better still go to New Orleans and taste the authentic dish yourself.

Shopping list

  • 1 doz small oysters (3 each as an appetiser)
  • 4 TBSP very finely chopped parsley
  • 2 TBSP very finely chopped celery (tender inner stalks)
  • 2 TBSP very finely chopped chives
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • 2 TBSP very finely chopped capers, drained
  • 2 TBSP breadcrumbs

Garnish

  • Rock Salt as a base for cooking
  • Parsley sprigs
  • Lemon wedges

Special tools

  • Oyster shucking knife
  • Piping bag with a large serrated nozzle

Preparation and cooking

  1. Keeping the fresh oysters cool on ice, but not submerged, while you make the topping.
  2. Wash and chop the parsley, removing any big stalks, very finely. Wash and chop the celery, using the tender inner stalks, very finely. Wash and chop the chives, very finely. If you have a food mill, strain these ingredients through to create a pureé.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a pan and lightly sauté the greens until they are tender. Remove from heat, stir in breadcrumbs. Season to taste, remembering the oysters will be salty. This can be done in advance.
  4. Heat the oven to 475°F/245°C (or very hot). Scrub the oysters clean under cold running water. Using a folded terry towel and the shucking tool, pry the oysters open, discarding the flat top shell. Cut the oyster from the base and pour off any excess liquor. Feel around with your finger to ensure there are no sharp bits of shell left behind.
  5. Into a baking pan, pour about ½” of rock salt crystals. (If you are using the same rock salt you use for the driveway in winter, pour it into a colander first and shake out the dust.) Set each oyster in the salt to prevent it tipping over.
  6. Pour any saved oyster liquor into your greens mixture and stir in. Taking a piping bag, insert a large nozzle in the end, fold the top of the bag to make a cuff and spoon in all the mixture. Twist the bag closed and force the mixture out through the nozzle onto the top of each oyster. You should have a good, thick, decorative top on each. If you don’t have a piping bag, simply use a dessert sized spoon to place a dollop onto each oyster. You can add stripes with a fork to improve cooking.
  7. In the oven they go, for about 10 mins. To present them at the table, take a decorative small dish, plate or platter. Add about ½” rock salt and place three oysters in the salt for stability. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and wedges of lemon. Serve immediately.

BAKED OYSTERS WITH SPINACH

OYSTERS C

Baked with spinach

We’re trying to not eat meat at the moment, so I’ve left out the bacon. Otherwise this is a popular version.

Shopping list

  • 1 doz fresh small oysters (3 each as an appetiser)
  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 4 TBSP finely chopped cooked fresh spinach leaves
  • 2 TBSP finely chopped shallots
  • 2 TBSP breadcrumbs
  • 2 shakes Tabasco Sauce
  • 1/2 TSP Pernod or Sambucca
  • 1/2 TSP salt

Garnish

  • Rock Salt as a base for cooking
  • Parsley sprigs
  • Lemon wedges

Preparation and cooking

  1. Keeping the fresh oysters cool on ice, but not submerged, while you make the topping.
  2. Wash the spinach and trim off any large stalks. Blanch the leaves in a pan until they are wilted. Remove, cool and chop finely. Peel the shallots and chop very finely. Melt the butter in the pan, soften the shallots and return the chopped spinach. Mix well and remove from heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir in. Add a couple of shakes of Tabasco Sauce and a dash of liquorice flavoured liqueur. Season to taste, remembering the oysters are salty. If you have a food mill, strain these ingredients through to create a pureé. This can be done in advance.
  3. Heat the oven to 475°F/245°C (or very hot). Scrub the oysters clean under cold running water. Using a folded terry towel and the shucking tool, pry the oysters open, discarding the flat top shell. Cut the oyster from the base and pour off any excess liquor. Feel around with your finger to ensure there are no sharp bits of shell left behind.
  4. Into a baking pan, pour about ½” of rock salt crystals. (If you are using the same rock salt you use for the driveway in winter, pour it into a colander first and shake out the dust.) Set each oyster in the salt to prevent it tipping over.
  5. Pour any saved oyster liquor into your greens mixture and stir in. Taking a piping bag, insert a large nozzle in the end, fold the top of the bag to make a cuff and spoon in all the mixture. Twist the bag closed and force the mixture out through the nozzle onto the top of each oyster. You should have a good, thick, decorative top on each. If you don’t have a piping bag, simply use a dessert sized spoon to place a dollop onto each oyster. You can add stripes with a fork to improve cooking.
  6. In the oven they go, for about 10 mins. To present them at the table, take a decorative small dish, plate or platter. Add about ½” rock salt and place three oysters in the salt for stability. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and wedges of lemon. Serve immediately.

FINAL NOTE: In a blind taste test my guests preferred the baked spinach version to the Antoine’s version. I liked both, but actually preferred the raw oysters we used as a control group. Each to their own.

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